If the vision could have remained true to reality from when the rubber first met the road in March of 2003 to the present, the neocons would be almost as great as the second coming. Go into the Middle East, which the West had largely forgotten in its zeal to transmit its values and institutions globally, knock out the repressive, corrupt regimes and put in their place a constitution and a box of ballots.
Iraq, with its seventeen UN resolution violations, a history of aggression, a battlefield familiar to the American military brass, an unpopular and brutal dictator at the helm, and possibly WMDs was a logical first target. Then, presumably, the next member of the Axis of Evil would fall to US invasion--the Persians might prove tougher but Iran's public would support us after seeing the transformation next door. Our pals in the House of Sa'ad would get the picture, and introduce substantive reforms. Oil production would be stabilized to the benefit of the world's economy, and we'd have a whole host of new Israels in the desert.
In a mere three weeks the globe's fourth largest army was brought to its knees. The rubicon had been crossed--the US-led coalition had done its part magnificently. Critics like NYT's Frank Rich looked like bufoons. Then Iraqis had to start doing things and it all went to hell. No, I'm not placing responsibility on the Iraqis. It was all so predictable, apparently. I'd like to think if I'd actively followed current events three years ago I would have sensed a folly of mammoth proportions, although that's easy to say now.
The monumental WMD mistake aside, trying to put a liberal democracy in place was and remains a pipe dream for a host of reasons: 1) PPP (real purchasing power per capita) historically has had to have been somewhere above $6,000 to have a solid chance of succeeding and virtually always fails if it is below $3,000. Iraq's is $2,100. 2) Intense cultural divisions with three major factions vying for control: Semi-autonomous Kurds as the most competent, Sunnis (especially former Baathists) as the most vicious and used to dominance despite comprising only 15%-20% of the country, and Shia as the chronically oppressed numerical majority. 3) Fundamentalist Islam is not amenable to liberalism, with its militancy, general intolerance of other belief systems, subjugation of women, etc. 4) An estimated average IQ of 87 (comparable to the American black average). 5) Extensive nepotism and only a tertiary investment in nationalism--in fact, half of all Iraq men are in a consanguineous marriage to a second cousin or closer. 6) Neigbors hostile to the 'Zionist-enabling' West, among others.
How could we have glossed over all of this? Or did the Administration have the audacity to think we could overcome it? Vice President Dick Cheney certainly had his doubts--in 1991:
"If you're going to go in and try to topple Saddam Hussein," Cheney said, "you have to go to Baghdad. Once you've got Baghdad, it's not clear what you do with it. It's not clear what kind of government you would put in place of the one that's currently there now. Is it going to be a Shia regime, a Sunni regime or a Kurdish regime? Or one that tilts toward the Baathists, or one that tilts toward the Islamic fundamentalists? How much credibility is that government going to have if it's set up by the United States military when it's there? How long does the United States military have to stay to protect the people that sign on for that government, and what happens to it once we leave?"Whatever the rationale, we now have an aggrandized problem with the Iranians. With Iran predominately Shia, the elected Iraqi government is going to mend fences and probably become allied with Iran, in stark contrast to the secular Sunni Saddam, who spent eight years butchering (and being butchered by) his Persian neighbor to the east. The Baathist regime used notoriously ruthless tactics coupled with acts of 'magnanimity' (like paying the families of Palestinian suicide bombers) to keep in check and gain the favor of, respectively, Islamic fundamentalists. Will a Shia majority amiable to Iran do the same? Highly unlikely.
Further, two secondary objectives (beyond the direct threat of putative WMD)--the improved security for Israel and the increase in Iraqi oil production--have both gone unfulfilled. Hitler's reincarnation--now wearing a headscarf, noticeably more swarthy, and the President of Iran--has recently called for Israel to be wiped off the map and the Holocaust a "myth". Oil production is only at about 80% of prewar capacity three years in.
Public opinion of the US in the Muslim world has deteriorated in some places (but risen in others), although it has never been good. While there's not much that is going to change that short of us replacing the Constitution with Sharia law and reinacting the Holocaust, Western boots on the ground are something for Ansar al Islam, Hezbollah, and Al Qaeda to rally around.
Maybe there is a silver lining somewhere in this miasmi. A few good things have happened: Libya gave up its weapons program, and the reality of invasion has made salient to both Assad's Syria and Saudi Arabia that the US is more than empty rhetoric. The most prodigious scam in the history of the modern world--the UN Oil-for-Food program--has exposed how willing France, Russia, and China all are to work against American interests and starve emaciated Iraqi civilians for cheaper oil. And Saddam was a terrible guy who's plight--if it somehow existed in a vacuum--would be a tremendously good thing. But it may end up costing us as much as a trillion dollars, in addition to 2,100-plus deaths and almost 16,000 non-lethal casualties, amalgamated with everything discussed above appears to be on balance overwhelmingly bad.
That money could have been more prudently spent on alternative energy research to get us off dependency on the Middle East. If petroleum from the ground was obsolesced, not only would the Middle East collapse back into the 7th Century, other American antagonists like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela would take it in the teeth economically. Nuclear, photovoltaics, batteries, wind, hydro, coal-to-gas, and gas-to-liquid are all potential substitutes for ground oil.
Nuclear is already cost effective, and in fact Europe is a step ahead of the US here. France, for example, generates some 80% of its energy from nuclear, and China and Great Britain are headed in the same direction. In contrast, the US gets a paltry 5% from nuclear. Thankfully, after a thirty year hiatus Congress and the President have signed law to allow additonal nuclear plants to be built.
Whining and hindsight are easier subjects to deal in than what our next move should be. Stick our hands on our hearts, have Bush give platitudes about how we've given Iraq a chance at manifest destiny, and pull out? Or turn up the heat, engage in total war (including full-scale propaganda) and try to terrorize the populace in the Sunni Triangle to turn on the insurgents? Call in the UN? We need out of there (no more invading the world) and security at home (no more inviting the world)--including an end to or severe restriction of immigration from Islamic countries coupled with a merit immigration system rather than one based on family reunification and the use of free services.