We've come to believe we had just two choices in Iraq: (1) stay out and hope to keep Saddam Hussein “in his box”; or (2) proceed exactly as President Bush did – remove the dictator, occupy the country and attempt to bring peace, freedom, human rights and democracy to the Iraqis.
But there were other options. Thinking about them may help us determine where to go from here.
Start with this: Almost exactly two years ago, then-Presidential press secretary Ari Fleischer said that Bush administration's policy was “regime change.” But, he added, that did not necessitate a military invasion.
“The cost of one bullet,” he said, “the Iraqi people taking it (on) themselves … the cost of war is more than that."
Fleischer later explained he had meant that the administration would support any Iraqi effort to be rid of the dictator. Why didn't that happen?
“In the period between the 1991 Iraq War and the 2003 Iraq War,” notes former Clinton Iraq advisor Laurie Mylroie, “the CIA, working with Ayyad Allawi (now Iraq's prime minister) and his organization, the Iraqi National Accord, attempted several coups. Each time they were penetrated by Iraqi intelligence and failed.”
In other words, the U.S. could not secure regime change in Iraq through clandestine means because our intelligence community was no match for Saddam's formidable security apparatus -- for which, blame Congress and every administration going back a quarter century.
A second possibility: A 19th century style “punitive expedition.” We could have invaded Iraq, toppled Saddam and then told the Iraqis: “Don't make us come back.”
The problem is that would have guaranteed Iraq collapsing into civil war and chaos, with unpredictable consequences. Not advisable when dealing with a country that has huge oil resources, scientists who know how to make Weapons of Mass Destruction and, in the view of most reputable intelligence agencies at that time, hidden WMD stockpiles.
So how about this: Invade Iraq, remove Saddam, and install a puppet regime exquisitely sensitive to America's interests. Just don't ask how the new rulers hold on to power.
That, too, would have harkened back to past policies. More significantly, it would have implied that freedom's expansion was no longer America's project. It would have declared that President John F. Kennedy's belief that Americans will “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty” – had been abandoned.
What other choices existed? On the strategic level, very few. On the tactical level, many.
We could have done more. We could have used more troops, prolonged combat, pursued the enemy deep into the Sunni Triangle, declared martial law, shot looters and imposed a tougher occupation.
We could have done less. We could have transferred sovereignty earlier to an acceptable individual or a friendly coalition. We could have left the Iraqi military largely intact, firing generals but letting colonels command troops, so long as they obeyed those we'd installed in power. We could have told the Iraqis: “We'll help you if we can, don't hesitate to ask. But this is your country and your responsibility, not ours.”
Clearly, we should have learned more from our “nation building” successes in Germany and Japan, our failure in Haiti and our mixed results in Bosnia and Kosovo. But there was no obvious model to follow. None of which excuses bureaucratic bungling – of which there has been plenty.
The path might have been smoother had there not been significant clashes of vision between the Pentagon and the State Department (with the CIA siding with State). Instead of deciding those conflicts one way or the other, President Bush and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice often seemed to split differences. Such compromises can produce the worst of both worlds.
Perhaps those leading the Iraq mission were overly ambitious. Not only did the U.S. take responsibility for defeating Saddam, his ruthless ruling class, their Jihadi allies and the agents of neighboring regimes intent on strangling freedom anywhere they find it. Washington also shouldered the main burden of rebuilding Iraq – everything from electricity grids to sewage -- creating democratic institutions and guaranteeing human rights.
But it is false to say that those most strongly advocating such policies – often dubbed neo-conservatives – are utopians. Rather, they believe that if Americans are to sacrifice blood and treasure, they should do so for something more meaningful than the replacement of a scowling tyrant with a smiling tyrant.
And they believe that rolling back the deserts created by such fascistic ideologies as Ba'athism and Jihadism, and helping replace them with oases of freedom, is the key challenge of this generation. True, Iraq and Afghanistan are not easy places to succeed. But where would the going be easier? Egypt? The West Bank and Gaza? Iran?
They argue, as well, that less than two years after Iraq's liberation is too soon to give up on Iraq and its people. (In Iraq's mountainous north, by the way, the Kurds, have already substantially succeeded.)
Yes, we should learn from our mistakes. But the bottom line was best articulated by British Prime Minister Tony Blair this week. He said that those we are fighting “have chosen this battleground because they know success for us in Iraq is not success for America or Britain or even Iraq itself, but for the values and way of life that democracy represents.”
Blair -- who might be called a socialist neo-conservative -- added: “That is why we should be there and, whatever disagreements we have had, should unite in our determination to stand by the Iraqi people until the job is done.”