Lessons learned are usually catalogued after a conflict as a guide to what went right and wrong. Whether or not the United States goes to war in Iraq, some critical lessons should already be learned. They will shape our future approach to war and peace in critical ways. Three stand out:
Transforming the Military. A key goal of the administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush has been to exploit the radical advance of high-technology military capabilities, beginning with command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. These capacities can meld different functions and branches of the military into coordinated, network-centric warfare, and support major changes in weapons and equipment.
In time, U.S. forces should be able to project power to any place on Earth from the continental United States. Military bases abroad should become obsolete; outer space should become a major environment for military activity, including, at the extreme, a capacity dubbed "rods from God": orbiting weapons that could provide high kinetic-energy kill of any ground target.
As happens with innovation, the military services tend to push back, or resist change. Many officers challenge the premise that ground forces eventually could largely be dispensed with, or their function delegated to allies, or that bases and allies overseas will no longer be needed.
But in the run-up to possible combat in Iraq, they are already being proved right. U.S. air power was decisive in Bosnia and Kosovo; along with a limited number of Special Forces, it was effective in Afghanistan. But in all three conflicts, there were ground campaigns, conducted by the Bosnian Muslims and Croats, the Kosovo Liberation Army, and the Afghan Northern Alliance.
In a duel to the death with Saddam, it is unclear that precision firepower will be able to substitute entirely for ground combat.
Perhaps even more important, U.S. planning for the aftermath of possible combat includes major military deployments for an extended period of time. Whether the estimate from Gen. Erik Shinseki, Army chief of staff, (several hundred thousand soldiers), or that of Paul Wolfowitz, deputy defense secretary (wildly off the mark), is proved right, the U.S. military will be required to occupy Iraq, doing tasks similar to those it and the allies have done in Bosnia and Kosovo.
Certainly, what is required in the post-conflict stage in Iraq and very likely elsewhere is only tangentially related to a transformed military. The highest tech and the lowest tech must co-exist, and this lesson is at odds with administration doctrine that the military doesn't do nation-building.
The U.S. military has been put in this awkward position in large part because the Pentagon can command resources other foreign affairs agencies cannot. Bush has championed the U.N.-led "Millennium Account" for development, as he has embraced the idea that poverty can be a stimulus for terrorism.
But the extra U.S. funding will be only $5 billion a year—10 percent of last year's increase in a military budget already 35 times that for development assistance.
In any event, America's military should not be asked to fight (essential) while also conducting what has been called social work (a distraction). The last time the U.S. military was put in such a bifurcated position, in Vietnam, it was made the "fall guy" for a generation because of gross errors of judgment by civilian leaders and a complaisant Congress.
America's Alliances. Even with the capacity to project high-tech military power directly from the homeland or carrier task forces, the United States still needs allies. Some of the need is military: to share the burdens of ground combat that will not be eliminated, especially as America's enemies increasingly adopt asymmetrical tactics.
Some of the need is access and influence: the relationships with military and civilian leaders built over years through direct, continuing engagement, including the maintenance of bases in friendly countries.
Some of the need is about burden sharing. U.S. debate in the last few months has questioned whether the American people will support a discretionary war—unlike the war on terrorism—without allied support.
Allied post-conflict support also is needed to provide knowledge and experience.
Britain and France, in particular, have long experience at peacekeeping; other allied states have experience at nation-building. For knowledge of the Middle East, Arab and Kurdish cultures, and even Arabic and other regional languages, we will need to draw heavily on people from other nations.
International Institutions and U.S. Principles. At the beginning of this administration, debate was renewed about whether the United States should focus on multilateral or unilateral approaches to key problems. Going-it-alone prevailed, certainly in rhetoric if not always in practice.
But as war in Iraq seems to be quickly approaching, this idea of isolation has been thoroughly discredited. European members of NATO (along with the European Union) remain the key repository of economic capacity, political leadership, and the possibility of a collective sense of purpose on which we must be able to draw to shape Iraq, the Middle East, or any other part of the world in ways congenial to our interests.
The United Nations has been underscored in U.S. public perceptions as critical to provide legitimacy for U.S. military actions, especially a discretionary war. Even more important, there is increasing concern the United States is eroding some of its most precious assets by asserting it can make a pre-emptive war without a U.N. resolution.
These assets include its alliance relationships and reputation built up during the past 50 years; its efforts for the past 80 years to broaden respect for the rule of law; and its value base, dating from the founders.
These are inescapable lessons for the future that must be learned before conflict erupts.
Robert E. Hunter is a senior advisor at the RAND Corporation who served as U.S. ambassador to NATO from 1993 to 1998.
This commentary originally appeared in Defense News on March 17, 2003. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.