Among many on the left, the only "lesson" from the Iraq War is that we should stay out of such adventures. However, a closer look at the war, particularly what worked and what did not work, would reveal more significant lessons. As is well known, the conventional phase of the war succeeded brilliantly, toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein in less than a month. The problems in the regime-replacement phase of regime change, Phase IV in military language. Even in Phase IV, there was a mixture of results, with some areas of operations (AOs) showing greater receptiveness to American efforts than others.
A summary of what distinguished the more receptive AOs from the less receptive ones would be that the commanders focusing on kinetic operations (kill-capture and other direct actions) found their AOs to be less receptive while commanders embracing a full spectrum approach found greater receptiveness. A figure in an earlier version of Army Field Manual 3-24 illustrated this by showing parallel campaigns starting with a small share of the population supporting the counterinsurgency, a small share supporting the insurgents, and the vast majority on the fence. In the campaign in which the counterinsurgency efforts focus exclusively on kinetic operations and training indigenous forces, the population shifts to majority support or the insurgents with most of the remainder on the fence. In contrast, in the campaign that adds lines of operation for economic development and critical infrastructure to the traditional military lines of operation, the population shifts to majority support for the counterinsurgents.
The important lesson is not the tactics of selecting lines of operation, rather it is the strategic objective of winning support from the population. When the insurgents have the support of the population, whether by offering a more compelling vision of the future or through intimidation, it would become difficult of control them other than through a "Carthago delenda est" approach. It is also not that force should be avoided. Indeed a major component in turning the tide in Iraq was nightly raids conducted by JSOC in order to eliminate targets identified through intelligence, often from intel gained from the raids of the previous night. Rather it is that force has to be targeted and restrained as much as possible to those who are identified as irreconcilable.
Before discussing what lessons Iraq offers for Israel, it would help to examine what distinguishes unconventional conflicts like Iraq and the Palestinian national movement's war against Israel from conventional ones like World War II and Korea. The main point I would highlight would be to ask if Hitler would have had a single tank more to dispatch to the Battle of the Bulge if the population of Germany had been ready to form a human chain in the way of the Allied advance than he would have if the population had been ready to impale him. The answer is of course no, popular support does not affect the availability of heavy armaments for a war effort, and convention conflicts are characterized by dependence on heavy armaments. In contrast, unconventional combatants can pack more of a punch from light armaments and thus can more readily put popular support to use in their efforts. Further, the unconventional combatant typically aims to hide among the people as much as possible in order to minimize the opponent's ability to strike back without hitting noncombatants, a task which depends on having support from the local population.
It is in the role of popular support of allowing the combatants to hide among the people that there is a parallel between Iraq and Israel. As in Iraq, the Palestinian population is divided between those who support Palestinian national movement's aim of complete liquidation of Israel, those who support accommodation, and those who are non-committed. Also like in Iraq, the hard-line rejectionists use overwhelming force to compel their compatriots to at least acquiesce to their cause rather than seek accommodation. Some actions against this threat will transfer directly. For instance, the principle of "first with the truth" will apply in Israel the same as it did from MNF-Iraq and ISAF, a notion which should resonate with anyone who has watched Hamas' lies get half way around the world before the truth could get its shoes on. However, there are differences, most notably the ratios, with a vastly higher share of Palestinians supporting liquidationism than Iraqis who supported AQI. Further, the Palestinian national movement (PNM) has far greater control over information operations than the Americans did in Iraq. However, these are tactical issues that affect how one would convince more Palestinians to support accommodationism, not strategic issues of what the impact of being able to do so would be.
There are two messages that I would present based on this approach to advancing national interests. One message is directed to the peace camp, which would include the Obama administration. It is that actions undertaken in the name of advancing peace should be evaluated based on the effect they have on the public esteem of groups like Wasatiya which seek genuine accommodation with Israel. This is in contrast to the current approach of imposing on Israel to yield to any "reasonable" demand, as determined by the peace camp, of PNM whether the peace camp does so as a strategiless tactic or if they see some strategic significance to Israel making such concessions.
A separate message is directed to those seeking the noble objective of putting an end to Hamas and the more radical organizations. One fact that people must recognize is that as long as the Islamists have a constituency, they will exist. There are two ways of undermining their constituencies. One would be the Carthaginian approach, that is to kill everyone who could possibly come to support one of the Islamist movements, which would be fairly called genocide. The other approach would be to convince their constituents to abandon them for some other more accommodating movement. The former approach cannot be done with more targeted killings because that approach induces those who might otherwise not support one of the Islamists to do so. This is not to deny that targeted killings can disrupt an enemy group's operations or that such killings could be a part of undermining its constituency. However, on its own, killings can not undermine its constituency.
In order to undermine support for the Islamist movements, and any secular movements opposing Jewish self-determination, it is thus necessary to build support among the Palestinians for some party that supports Jewish rights to self-determination. Doing so does not mean polyanishly labeling any group that recognizes the strategic value of being perceived in the west as supporting Jewish rights to self-determination, most notably Fatah, as genuinely supporting Jewish self-determination no matter what they do that the west does not factor in to their assessment. Indeed, doing so merely tells the Palestinian people that they don't have to support Jewish self-determination to gain anything, only con the west into believing they do, while setting back the cause of building support parties that genuinely support Jewish self-determination.
I am well aware that the Palestinian parties, such as Wasatia and Sheikh Jabari, currently have little to no influence in Palestinian society. However, as GEN David Petraeus said when he assumed command of MNF-Iraq, "hard is not hopeless." What their present lack of influence indicates is that we should not make concrete concessions based on the hope that Wasatia or Jabari will take control, or that someone adopting their ideology will. On the other hand, outlining what concessions can come if such an event will occur would provide some reason for the populace to support them. In the meantime, a start would be lend these groups international prestige as the real force, as opposed to Fatah, for advancing peace.