HKS Authors

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Director, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
Kirkpatrick Professor of the Practice of International Affairs


As America looks back on this 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, the war in Iraq looms large — and usually not in a good way. At best, it’s regarded as a distraction, a needless conflict that took America’s focus away from Afghanistan and al-Qaeda. At worst, the Iraq war is decried as a fiasco, the United States’ “greatest strategic disaster,” as retired Gen. William Odom, the former National Security Agency director, once put it. There is no question that Iraq, as it stands today, has fallen short of American — and Iraqi — hopes and expectations. And there is no question that the costs of the war, for both sides, have been greater than anticipated. Even so, Iraq’s achievements — including the establishment of representative institutions against all odds — are hardly minor. The country could still become mired in a civil conflict that destabilizes the region. But it is equally or even more conceivable that, with relatively small amounts of continued U.S. support, the greatest strategic benefits of the Iraq intervention will materialize in the next several years. And these benefits would more than justify an ongoing U.S. military presence there. This belief about Iraq’s strategic potential is not based on the naivete that underpinned many optimistic assessments before the war, and it is rooted in firmer ground than the desperate hopes of someone, like me, who has devoted much of the past decade to U.S. efforts in Iraq. While by no means inevitable, there are at least three ways in which Iraq has only just begun to show its strategic value.


O'Sullivan, Meghan. "Why U.S. Troops Should Stay in Iraq." Washington Post, September 9, 2011.