06/30/2014 02:38 pm ET Updated Aug 30, 2014

American Lives Have Not Been Wasted in Iraq


Sunni extremists' recent gains in Iraq have strained our nation's foreign policy. Liberal and conservative politicians alike are calling for intervention, and their demands are competing with an equally audible -- and bipartisan -- cry for restraint. President Obama has come under extreme pressure to act, and though many are upset about his reluctance to do so, we must consider that there aren't any "easy" or "good" solutions for this conundrum to begin with. Perhaps Obama's emphasis on careful and deliberate analysis before committing to military action is in fact the only way we can salvage what little utility remains from the sacrifices our fighting forces made in our near-decade long Iraqi quagmire?

Militant Islamists controlling the very ground our forces fought so hard to stabilize is understandably aggravating for any veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The war alone was damaging enough; the latest offensive by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham is the proverbial salt in our veterans' wounds. Most of our nation's service members, past and present, are now wondering if everything we sacrificed in Iraq was for naught. American lives were not lost in vain, and President Obama's reluctance to get deeply involved is proof of this.

Since the last American troops withdrew in December of 2011 we have had to observe Iraq spiral out of control; the fragile government, which depended heavily on US forces for guidance and legitimacy, is rapidly losing influence among the Iraqi people and sectarian violence is threatening to pull the country into civil war. The introduction of an aggressive and powerful international terror group intent on establishing a Caliphate is a disturbing addition; the disintegration and subsequent failure of Iraq's military is even more so.

This is all indicative of an outcome many of us foolishly ignore or stubbornly refute: we lost the war in Iraq. The mission was regime change, and given that the US is now contemplating pressuring Iraq's Prime Minister to resign in order to avoid an all-out civil war it is difficult to argue otherwise. Regardless of this loss, however, the value we ascribe to our military's sacrifices remains subjective and I implore America to honor our military by not letting these lost lives be wasted.

Our losing the Iraq war taught us a very valuable lesson, and President Obama's policies reflect that by showcasing America's newfound reluctance to engage in military action where diplomatic means may be more, if not exclusively, appropriate. The history of U.S. foreign policy progresses in tandem with the history of our country itself; that is to say, American foreign policy has always adapted to fit our unique place in the international hierarchy, whatever that position may be at a given time. Unfortunately for us, our policies cannot and will not ever change instantly. These changes take time, and President Obama's actions prove that a positive iteration of policy change is currently taking place.

When considering the way U.S. foreign policy fluctuated between periods of interventionism and isolationism during the first and second world wars, as well as the astoundingly assertive policies we adopted in our efforts to counter expansion of the U.S.S.R., we can see that adaptation is and has always been very fluid; the driving force behind its evolution usually manifesting in the form of recognized and respected lessons learned. For the United States, the Iraq war is one of many such lessons. The collapse of the Soviet Union and America's resulting ascent to the top of a then newly unipolar international order absolved the need for constant and intruding assertiveness, but consistent with history, reflection in our foreign policy lagged considerably. America failed to adopt appropriate corrections in time to save us from the mistakes we made in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Our military incursion into Afghanistan, aiming to destroy al Qaeda 's ability to operate, may have been justified but was nevertheless poorly planned and lacked sufficient foresight to alert us of the entanglement that would follow. Our nation's leaders made the mistake of thinking that replacing the Taliban would be an easy feat, but as holds true with any matter of international relations, it was impossible to precisely identify the perfect course of action; we can really only ever discern which actions are wrong, and even at that our ability to do so is often restricted to the realm of post-action scrutiny. After thirteen years of combat and few tangible successes it is safe to say that the depth of our role in Afghanistan was likewise a mistake. But this mishap pales in comparison to our calamity in Iraq.

America preemptively invaded a sovereign nation on the false premise of Iraq's possessing weapons of mass destruction. Our "Coalition of the Willing" then set in for what would turn out to be a demoralizing, confusing, expensive and bloody occupation. The damage this caused to our nation's reputation and the more than 3,500 American lives lost were enough to force us past the threshold of policy adaptation, and President Obama's decisions to abstain from intervening in Syria and the Ukraine, as well as his current reluctance to provide military assistance to the embattled Iraqi government, represent a welcome break from the Bush-era practices that put our military in Iraq to begin with. The United States is finally shifting away from the aggressive policies we enacted to counter the rise of the Soviet Union.

Our invasion of Iraq was a result of overly assertive, Cold War-era foreign policy. The tragedy of the invasion and occupation served as an unfortunate but necessary check to what was becoming a dangerously nationalistic American Exceptionalism. We should not trivialize the sacrifices our fighting forces made on account of a lost war, but rather we should actively prevent those lives from being lost in vain by ensuring that the lesson we learned is retained and applied. We failed in Iraq, but we can and will find a way to be a better nation because of it.