. . these wars were lost because there is an enormous difference between defeating a third-rate conventional army (which is what Saddam had) and governing a restive, deeply-divided, and well-armed population with a long-standing aversion to all forms of foreign interference. There was no way to "win" either war without creating effective local institutions that could actually run the place (so that we could leave), but that was the one thing we did not know how to do. Not only did we not know who to put in charge, but once we backed anybody, their legitimacy automatically declined. And so did our leverage over them, as people like President Karzai understood that our prestige was now on the line and we could not afford to let him fail. . . .
The real lesson one should draw from these defeats is that the United States doesn't know how to build democratic societies in large and distant Muslim countries that are divided by sectarian, ethnic, or tribal splits, and especially if these countries have a history of instability or internal violence. Nobody else does either. But that's not a mission we should be seeking out in the future, because it will only generate greater hatred of the United States and further sap our strength.
Another lesson here? The US did not - and does not - have the ability (nor was it the US's prerogative) to re-shape geopolitical realities in the Middle East with the blunt hammer of the US military. We're not that powerful, unless we were to decide to unleash a nuclear Armageddon . . . in which case, what would have been the point of domination over a desolation.
But I strongly disagree with Prof. Walt's conclusion that there is a bright spot in all this, in that the "US is willing to fight for a long time under difficult conditions." Let's remember that, on the whole, the American people were insulated from the harsher realities of a long war. There was no military conscription. The wars were fought by a volunteer professional army, a kind of new warrior class of rural and working-class white kids and underprivileged minorities, many of them Hispanic. Much of middle-class and upper-class America partied on, happy to remain oblivious to the havoc their military was wreaking in their name, or salving any pangs of conscience by sticking a decal on their vehicles to declare their support for "the troops." There was no rationing of critical materials. In fact, near the war's outset, Bush cut taxes, choosing to run up a huge tab being held for him in Beijing.
In other words, a war with no shared sacrifice during its darker hours - but now, as the troops are being pulled out, the bills are coming due - and the shared sacrifices are only beginning.