Since World War II, Americans have obsessively mined their armed conflicts for "lessons." Every war spawns books, workshops and conferences. The U.S. military has even institutionalized the "lessons learned" process, creating organizations like the Army's Center for Lessons Learned at Fort Leavenworth, Kanas, which can turn information from the field into officially sanctioned lessons in short order. Within the policy community, where there are no generals and admirals to decide which lessons are worth learning and which are not, it normally takes a few years to reach agreement on the lessons of a given conflict -- time allows perspective and a sense of balance. Often preliminary lessons that took shape immediately after a war are re-evaluated and discarded.
With the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq coming up, there is a flurry of activity within the policy community to reassess that conflict's strategic lessons. This is a very important process. In the broadest sense, the lessons of Iraq suggest the appropriate way for the United States to deal with hostile dictators. This is an enduring issue: Iraq has already shaped U.S. policy toward Libya and Syria and continues to affect Washington's approach to Iran and North Korea. Some day, Iraq may influence U.S. strategy toward other authoritarian regimes. The Iraq War has become part of America's foreign policy playbook.
When the United States faces a hostile dictatorship, it has three choices. One is to leave the tyrannical or authoritarian regime in place and contain it. Traditional conservatives and realists who believe that instability and chaos are a greater threat than dictators favor this approach.