Fisher: Was success ever possible in Iraq?

U.S. Army Pvt. 1st Class David Hedge from

U.S. Army Pvt. 1st Class David Hedge from Bealeton, Va., foreground, and fellow soldiers from 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment are enveloped in rotor wash moments after arriving by Blackhawk helicopter for an operation to disrupt weapons smuggling in Istaqlal, Iraq, north of Baghdad. (Credit: AP, 2011)

Only 38 percent of Americans believe that the Iraq War was "worth it." My own anecdotal, non-scientific survey of Washington-based foreign policy and national security professionals would put that number even lower, with an overwhelmingly majority of that small circle considering the 2003 invasion in particular to have been, as then-Washington Post correspondent Tom Ricks termed it in the title of his 2006 book, a "Fiasco."

On the 10th anniversary of the start of the Iraq war, much of the retrospection and lesson-learning has focused on how and why the United States came to lead the invasion. Was it a function of shoddy intelligence? Of a mistaken, and potentially ideologically driven, misunderstanding of the Middle East? Of cynical leadership?

But there's a second set of questions about the U.S.-led "fiasco" in Iraq: To what extent was it a disaster not just because of the decision to invade, but because of the way that invasion was executed?


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Put another way, is it possible that the invasion was a mistake that might have still been executed much more effectively? Maybe even in a way that, despite the errors of the invasion itself, salvaged a much better outcome than the one we got? Was there a "window of opportunity" for relative success? Some observers of the war, including critics of the decision to invade, argue that there was a window, but that it was squandered. That possibility would seem to be not just important for understanding the Iraq disaster and its legacy, but crucial for learning its lessons for U.S. foreign policy and military strategy.

Counterfactuals are, by their nature, fundamentally unknowable. We can only really guess what would have happened had history unfolded differently. But it's certainly possible that the decision to invade was a bad one, for a number of reasons (which are chronicled by abler observers of U.S. domestic politics), but a mistake that still could have turned out far better than it did. And, to be clear: It turned out disastrously for Iraqis and Americans alike.

That's a sensitive argument to make, for the obvious reason that it could be taken as playing down the degree to which the invasion itself was both a mistake and dishonestly propagated. (It could also happen to feed into the argument, which I do not wish to make, that the invasion was actually a great idea and would have gone wonderfully if not for the botched execution.) Still, separate from the (important) conversation about how the United States decided to invade, there may be a second conversation to be had about whether or not there was still some opportunity, in the first months of the war, to overcome those initial mistakes and find some degree of relative success in Iraq.

If there was such an opportunity, and it was squandered, then an important part of looking back over the war's legacy would seem to include evaluating that opportunity, how we could have held on to it, and how it slipped away.

If the United States hasn't disbanded the Iraqi army and expelled huge numbers of Iraqi technocrats through "de-Baathification," for example, it's plausible that security would not have deteriorated quite so severely, that security services would have been better positioned to slow the rise of lawlessness and sectarian bloodletting. If the U.S. occupation force had made some early effort to protect landmarks like the national museum, a trove of ancient Iraqi treasures and documents, perhaps public support might have been a touch more forthcoming.

And, crucially, if the Bush administration had invested more money and energy into the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, which arrived to find offices without chairs or phone lines, if it had given more credence to the State Department's early work on post-conflict reconstruction rather than allow the Pentagon, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in particular, to shunt the Arabists and Iraq hands aside, the United States might have been able to capitalize more on early Iraqi receptiveness to the occupation and avoided more of the alienation and fracturing in Iraqi society.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, a senior correspondent at The Washington Post whose searing 2006 book on the post-invasion mistakes and how they were made, "Imperial Life in The Emerald City," touched on these ideas Tuesday on NBC's Morning Joe. Here are some excerpts:

"We spent so much time talking in this run-up to the 10th anniversary about the flawed intelligence and the WMD, but the mistakes that we made when we got to Baghdad, the de-Baathification, telling many mid-level members of Saddam's party who had no blood on their hands, 'You have no future in Iraq,' disbanding the Iraqi army, and a series of other decisions we made. We sent a 24-year-old kid over there with a background in finance to re-open Baghdad's stock exchange. We sent political apparatchiks to do important work. And those mistakes that we made in that first year, when it was an occupation, a technical American occupation, really, we squandered the window of opportunity that we had. . . .

"It happens because the Bush administration is convinced that this is going to be a cakewalk. So instead of looking around for the best and the brightest in this country, the people with nation-building experience, people with some background in the Middle East and language skills, the White House and the Pentagon instead went and chose the loyal and the willing. Children of donors because they thought this would be a great resume-building exercise. They get there, the insurgency kicks off in part because of mistakes they start to make, and by the fall of 2003, just six months after we get there, they find themselves completely over their heads."

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