Iraq in a Nutshell
There are three key aspects of Iraq that must be included in any summary: Iraq as WMD threat, Iraq as humanitarian mission (and as massive post-invasion fuckup), and Iraq as colossal quagmire we can't seem to either remedy or abandon.
1) The WMD Threat
Since this was the justification the Administration gave to Congress, the nation, and the world for the war in the first place (see, for example, the Joint Resolution to Authorize the Use of United States Armed Forces Against Iraq, U.N. Resolution 1441, and Bush's speech to the nation on the eve of the invasion), this is what got us there. The claim was that Saddam had WMDs which would constitute a threat to us in terrorist hands. It turns out the Administration lied to us about the evidence supporting both the WMD claim and the terrorist-connection claim, which at this point should surprise nobody.
One could argue that despite the weakness of the evidence for WMDs, and the near-total absence of evidence for a Saddam-al Qaeda connection, the Administration believed the threat to be real, and deceived the American people so that they could dispense with the threat anyway. Unfortunately, our conduct of the invasion itself demolishes that myth.
As George Packer reminds us in The Assassins' Gate (p.134), during the invasion
the Third Infantry Division and First Marine Expeditionary Force were chewing up hundreds of miles of desert on their way to the Iraqi capital, leaving in their path liberated but unsecured territory.A primary reason this territory behind our front lines was left unsecured was (p.118)
In planning for Iraq throughout 2002, Rumsfeld obliged General Tommy Franks of Central Command to whittle his invasion force down from an original half million...to around 160,000.This wouldn't have been important if it hadn't been for the WMDs: as the Washington Post's Barton Gellman reported just ten days after the infamous "Mission Accomplished" speech, the "liberated but unsecured territory" contained a number of prospective WMD sites. The absence of any attempt to secure the sites meant that they were looted to the ground in between the time our front lines liberated the sites, and the time when our Task Force 75, charged with finding which of these sites had in fact had WMDs or equipment to produce them, could inspect the sites.
In other words, if the sites had in fact held WMDs, they would have been looted, and nothing could have prevented terrorists from obtaining them from the looters. If there had been WMDs, our invasion would have accomplished the very thing it was supposed to prevent. It was a war plan that placed a low priority on securing the potential WMDs, and as such, it has to be regarded as the war plan of an Administration that had little concern about WMDs as a threat.
I am personally convinced that they expected to find token quantities of old nerve gas or mustard gas that they could exhibit as justification for the war, and were as surprised as everyone else by their apparent complete absence. But I am equally convinced that they did not expect to find biological or chemical weapons that could have been used by terrorists to kill thousands of Americans. If they did, their war plan was completely disconnected from their expectations. And in the end, I think we must regard their actions - their invasion - as the primary evidence of their beliefs and intent. Absent a mind-meld with Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the other architects of the invasion, we must believe they didn't believe Saddam's WMDs constituted a meaningful threat.
2) Iraq as Humanitarian Mission
Saddam was a thug who ruled through violence and fear. Lord knows the Iraqis deserved something better than life under Saddam.
Unfortunately, that didn't mean we were capable of giving it to them.
Even if we'd run the ideal occupation - thoroughly planned, with three times as many troops as we went in with, stopping the looting before it started, keeping the bureaucracy of Saddam's government up and running through an efficient transition - the outcome still might well have been sectarian war. (David Wurmser, who was a player in the Administration's planning for this war, had written papers about this possibility back in the 1990s.)
But of course the Bush Administration was still at war with itself, even as our psy-ops people were pulling down the statue, about whether we should be doing nation-building in Iraq, let alone who should do it or how. There was no postwar plan whatsoever, as George Packer documents in The Assassins' Gate (pp.110-148). And to this day, there's no evidence of an Administration plan in all this. Hell, even our goals are unclear.
And so Iraq keeps sliding into chaos. Compare the news from Iraq at any time after the statue fell, to the news a year later. With the modest exception that the news in April 2005 wasn't as bad as that of the conflagrations of April 2004, the trend has been steadily down. Now the civil war is increasingly out in the open, and there seems to be nothing we can do to stop it.
There are things that are worse than all but the most hellish dictatorships, and chaos, anarchy, and civil war are among them. Saddam ruled through extravagant fear, but normal life went on: people had jobs, got married, raised families, and carried on. What they didn't do, unless they had a death wish, was suggest that Saddam was less than a perfect ruler. But that threat, real as it was, was open, and there were clear and obvious ways to minimize one's exposure to that risk. Now, the threat is from everywhere - sectarian violence, gangs, kidnappers, and of course Americans and mercenaries, who are free to kill any Iraqis that they perceive as a threat.
As a humanitarian rescue mission, this is already a failure, and it's going to get worse before it gets better.
It eventually will get better, because it's unlikely that anarchy and chaos will last forever in Iraq. But that in no way justifies the invasion: if we hadn't invaded, eventually Saddam would have died of old age, or been killed, and the post-Saddam era would have arrived in a different way, which would have had just as much chance of working out for well or ill as the path that began with our invasion.
3) We Can't Fix It, We Can't Leave It
"Victory" is our goal, Bush says. Over whom? Iraq is falling into an increasingly open civil war, one in which we've played both a referee's role and a partisan role: we're the arbiter, but we've essentially sided with the Shi'ites against the Sunnis, which is why the Shi'ites haven't given us much trouble since Muqtada al-Sadr's rebellion of 2004.
But what are we going to do, now that our Shi'ite/Kurd client government is just as thuggish as the Ba'athists were? There doesn't seem to be much we can do. We have enough troops of our own to prevent an open civil war of massed armies, but that's not the civil war Iraq has - nor will it, since the Sunni insurgents are quite aware that they're outnumbered.
Our presence is doing a few things. It's keeping other countries from bringing troops across the Iraqi border. But we could do that from bases in a nearby country, or from the 'enduring bases' we have built away from the Iraqi cities. We're probably slowing somewhat the descent of Iraq into open civil war. But that descent is happening anyway. We're undoubtedly preventing the Sunni insurgents from openly running the Sunni portions of Iraq. The question there is, is that even something we should be doing?
At any rate, the best end-state we can hope for in Arab Iraq at this point is a stable Shi'ite theocracy, with enough power to suppress the Sunni insurgents. But even that's probably a dream beyond reach.
Given that, the question has to be asked: what are we fighting for? What do we still hope to accomplish in Iraq? How do we intend to do it, how much will it cost (in American and Iraqi blood, let alone treasure), and how long will it take? The time has long passed for vague goals of 'victory.' It's hard to have a clear idea of what's do-able when the Administration that controls so much of our information about Iraq is wrapped up in delusional thinking.
If I were asked what a Democratic alternative plan for Iraq should be, I'd say that by now, it's so fucked up that it's hard to imagine a plan that would un-fuck it. However, what we seemingly have now is no plan at all, and almost any plan that had some connection to reality would be better than that.