This month marks the tenth anniversary of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein by the United States and its partners. At this juncture, it is reasonable for Americans—and Iraqis and others—to ask whether the past decade of U.S. involvement in Iraq was worth it. Did the large human and financial costs produce an outcome that justifies the sacrifice? The frustrating reality is that it is still too early to form a definitive answer to this question. It is possible, however, to provide a partial evaluation at this time, one that identifies the relevant variables that should go into such a calculation and provides an assessment of them where possible.
By contrast, it is not too early to ask what we have learned from the past decade. Teasing out the lessons of Iraq in a way that goes beyond conventional wisdom is a prerequisite to ensuring that the next decade goes better than the last one did. At a time when the United States is resisting pressures for deeper involvement in Syria, and when at least some of our European allies are intervening elsewhere, we should be sure that the lessons we take from Iraq stand up to close and unsentimental inspection. Even though the circumstances around the removal of Saddam and the Arab upheavals of the past two years differ in significant ways, the challenges of rebuilding societies after decades of dictatorship are remarkably similar.