President Obama, speaking from the Oval Office, told the nation (and the world) that it is time to "turn the page" now that U.S. combat operations have officially ended in Iraq. And while he talked about what we learned from the last "page," the President missed an important part of the Iraq war's lesson. If we learned anything in Iraq, it's that our nation is most successful when we work in close cooperation with other nations as opposed to going at it alone. Our greatest strength is when we convince nations to join together and play by a common set of rules that we are also willing to adhere to.
President Obama correctly told us that:
"...one of the lessons of our effort in Iraq is that American influence around the world is not a function of military force alone. We must use all elements of our power -- including our diplomacy, our economic strength, and the power of America's example -- to secure our interests and stand by our allies."
This is true, and I'm proud to hear our president say this. But it's not just about "our power." During World War II, the U.S. initiated the creation of the United Nations system. The organization was built on a foundation of mutual security in response to a shared threat. In the Korean War, the U.S. participated with sixteen U.N. member states that provided troops under a United Nations Joint Command.
In early 2003, opposing the run up to the Iraq war, I wrote that while:
"...the evils of George W. Bush and Saddam Hussein are not in the same league ... what makes the two leaders equally problematic is that they both rely on national interest and national sovereignty to legitimize their use of military might and coercive force to achieve their aims. Both threaten to act outside of international law, thereby decreasing human security while increasing the potential of global warfare. ... Unfortunately, the Bush Administration's new preemptive policy of acting against 'emerging threats before they are fully formed' undermines the basic principles of the United Nations and collective security. "
President Bush's invasion of Iraq did indeed fan the flames of "global warfare." In Iraq, Afghanistan, parts of Africa, and around the world, religious fundamentalism now spawns violence that threatens the stability of all nations. President Obama identified "our fight against al Qaeda "as the U.S.'s greatest security challenge. He also said:
"Throughout our history, America has been willing to bear the burden of promoting liberty and human dignity overseas, understanding its link to our own liberty and security. "
But we don't and shouldn't have to bear the burden alone. This is the true lesson of the Iraq war. Looking forward, it's time to focus on how we can work to make the United Nations a more perfect tool to share this burden.
In Iraq and Afghanistan the U.N. has done an admirable job of supplying humanitarian aid and organizing elections. But there is an opportunity now to empower the organization with robust peacekeeping forces, including U.S. personnel, to assist Iraq and other nations as they strive to build peaceful societies.
The end of combat in Iraq does not mean the end to violence. Rather than engaging in a perhaps decades long deployment to backstop the Iraqis -- as we are still doing in Germany and Japan after WWII and in Korea after that war -- we should invest our energies into a UN system that can truly end the scourge of war. The UN was created to fight fascism. It then blocked the spread of communism. With U.S. support it could prevent fundamentalist-induced terrorism.
At the core of American ideals and international law is the belief that no group or nation should use violence to impose its will on others. We will have truly turned the page after Iraq if the United States' goal is a world where nations unite and work together to make this a reality.