Imagine it's early 2003, and President George W. Bush presents the following case for invading Iraq:
We're about to go to war against Saddam Hussein. Victory on the battlefield will be swift and fairly clean. But then 100,000 U.S. troops will have to occupy Iraq for about 10 years. On average, nearly 1,000 of them will be killed and another 10,000 injured in each of the first 5 years. We'll spend at least $1 trillion on the war and occupation, and possibly trillions more. Toppling Saddam will finish off a ghastly tyranny, but it will also uncork age-old sectarian tensions. More than 100,000 Iraqis will die, a few million will be displaced, and the best we can hope for will be a loosely federated Islamic republic that isn't completely in Iran's pocket. Finally, it will turn out that Saddam had neither weapons of mass destruction nor ties to the planners of 9/11. Our intervention and occupation will serve as the rallying cry for a new crop of terrorists.
It is extremely doubtful that Congress would have authorized such a war or that the American people would have shouted, "Bring it on!"
Some will protest that this counter-scenario is unfair. Nobody at the time predicted all of these outcomes (though several predicted some of them); Bush can't be blamed for the unforeseen consequences of (let us stipulate) a well-intentioned action.
However, toting up the war's extravagant costs against its meager (and still-speculative) gains is a valid way to gauge the larger question: Was the invasion worth launching? Was it a good idea? And the war must be appraised not as some abstract vision of an ideally waged war but rather as the actual, existing war that the Bush administration planned and executed.
The disastrous consequences that have been unfolding plainly over the past five years are not "side effects" of this war but rather the direct, head-on results. For example, it's an evasion to lament that, had then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld listened to the Joint Chiefs and sent twice as many troops, the war would have gone differently. Maybe so, but Rumsfeld wasn't interested in waging that kind of war. He saw the war not so much as a fight about Iraq as a demonstration of a new style of warfare—known as "military transformation" or "the revolution in military affairs"—that signaled how America would project power in the post-Cold War era. He saw, not incorrectly, a turbulent world of emerging threats, some in remote areas inaccessible from U.S. bases. The large, lumbering armies of old were not so suitable for such conflicts. Hence his emphasis on small, lightweight units of ground forces—fast to mobilize, easy to sustain—and superaccurate bombs and missiles to hit targets that only heavy artillery could destroy in decades past. With the Iraq war (and the Afghanistan conflict before it), he wanted to send rogue regimes and other foes a message: Look what we can do with one hand tied behind our back. If we can overthrow Saddam (and the Taliban) so easily, we can overthrow you, too.
It is no surprise, then, that Rumsfeld rejected the argument, made by several Army and Marine generals, that whatever happens on the battlefield, we'll need a few hundred thousand troops to impose order and help form a new Iraq. A large, lengthy occupation would have nullified his whole concept of new-style warfare and its vision of 21st-century geopolitics.
In other words, it is not the case, as many critics charge, that Rumsfeld "miscalculated" how many troops would be needed for the mission of stabilizing post-Saddam Iraq. Rather, he wasn't interested in that mission. In a National Security Council meeting shortly before the invasion, he insisted that the Pentagon, not the State Department, should take charge of planning for postwar Iraq—because he wanted to ensure that there would be no such planning (and, indeed, there wasn't).
A stronger case could be made that the occupation would have gone better had L. Paul Bremer, head of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, not issued (on whose orders, we still don't know) the directives that barred all Baathists from government jobs and disbanded the Iraqi army—thus alienating all Sunnis at a moment when reconciliation was vital and putting tens of thousands of armed young men out on the streets, angry and unemployed.
Still, it is unlikely that, even without the directives, a foreign occupier could have staved off sectarian violence for long. The majority Shiites would have naturally taken over the Baghdad government. The Sunnis, a minority accustomed to running things, would have rebelled. Holding early elections in the provincial districts—forming a federal republic from the bottom up—might have eased the factions into power more gradually, enabled them to make adjustments at each stage. We will never know. But again, this was not the way that Bush chose to go.
There is yet another way to assess the war: What if Saddam Hussein had not been toppled? Would Iraq be better or worse off? Would the Middle East be more or less stable, the United States safer or in greater danger?