Cliff May

We are where we are in Iraq, and it’s not a comfortable place. We are where we are in Iraq because mistakes were made both in planning and executing the war there. If we could do it all over again, what would we do differently?

We’d want to start with better intelligence – not just about whether Saddam Hussein had warehouses full of anthrax and nerve gas, but also about the state of the Iraqi nation after decades of abuse by a brutal dictator who privileged the Sunni minority, oppressed the Shia, and attempted to wipe the Kurds off the map.

It would have been helpful had the Pentagon, at the end of the Cold War, focused on the future. Instead of continuing to prepare for a war with the Soviet Union, additional special-operations forces might have been trained to battle insurgents and terrorists. Strategists could have foreseen that toppling a despotic regime would not be the hardest phase of future engagements. Preventing carnage and chaos while new institutions of government were pieced together would be where the road gets icy.

When the assault on Saddam was launched, Iraqis – representing an Iraqi government-in-exile – should have been riding the lead tanks into Baghdad. American spokesmen would have noted how pleased they were to be helping these brave patriots liberate their land.

An Iraqi leader would have taken charge immediately. He would have understood that we expected him to make democratic reforms over time. But we’d have comprehended that martial law might be necessary while he was eradicating, with our assistance, the vestiges of Saddam’s regime and preventing foreign terrorists from establishing bases in his country.

What if we couldn’t identify such an individual – the kind of leader Hamid Karzai has been in Afghanistan? Then we should have delayed the invasion until we did. Trusting that such an individual would emerge was too risky.

The Iraqi army would not have been disbanded by an America proconsul. Rather, the new Iraqi leader would have purged the (mostly Sunni) officer corps of Saddam loyalists and Baathists while the (mostly Shia) rank-and-file would have been summoned back to their posts. There they would have received their paychecks from new commanders (both Sunni and Shia).

We would have worked with the Iraqi military to stem the growth of militias and prevent an insurgency from organizing. But if such forces did develop despite our best efforts, President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld would have been candid about what military history tells us: Insurgencies are seldom defeated quickly.

Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.