Always Learn from Our Mistakes - Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya

Richard Boucher

We went into Iraq for many reasons: eliminate a chronic deployment of US forces, act on the post 9-11 belief that we had to stop potential threats before they came at us, rancor over Saddam's attempts to assassinate George Bush Sr. in the 1990s. The bad intelligence that we presented constituted more an argument rather than a justification; in any case, Iraq previously had more active programs that even we alleged and yet we didn't invade. That we could find evidence is not surprising: seek and ye shall find applies to intelligence as well. The US leadership, aided and abetted by leakers and journalists who wanted to get on the front page, also created an atmosphere where they didn't want to hear the truth and analysts and even foreign service officers lost their courage to speak truth to power. In the end the mistakes in Iraq were many --compiling bad information on top of bad information, relying on liars and exiles, striking first and asking questions later, an administration hounded and manipulated by its hard liners, a bungled occupation and de-baathification—but the fundamental error was invading and putting the US in charge of an unstable country in a volatile region with little direct danger or even importance to the US. It didn't work in Vietnam, it hasn't worked in Afghanistan, it hasn't worked in Iraq and it hasn't worked in Libya.

Lesson: don't believe the stories you tell yourself and always learn from our mistakes. 

How Can We Learn from Mistakes?

Readers - looking for your help and input here - what mistakes have you made that helped you become more effective, better officers? Please send in your mistakes that you learned from to our account!

A few mistakes that we made and made us better officers - from the 25YA Board Members:

  • Burned by the Press: One board member went inadvertently on the record on a controversial topic due to inexperience working with the press. Now, every conversation, even with the closest colleague or contact in the press, starts with setting ground rules. Not knowing to do that and getting burned early etched it into one apprentice’s mind and, years later, no further incidents to report!

  • Get Clear Guidance - on distro for a senior officer's email exploring some very TBD and high-stakes ideas.  Thinking I was being helpful, and assuming oversight, I looped in another section. Huge error, as the senior officer had a plan on how to work through an idea and then expand. I complicated that. My error added confusion, wasted time, and signaled that including me was "value-subtracted."  Lesson: trust your seniors on how they handle process, and if in doubt, check.