March 11, 2013
Soldiers from the 1st Infantry Division's 2nd Battalion engage enemy forces in heavy fighting in 2004 in the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, Iraq. (Scott Nelson/Getty Images)
Soldiers from the 1st Infantry Division’s 2nd Battalion engage enemy forces in heavy fighting in 2004 in the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, Iraq. (Scott Nelson/Getty Images)

Next week marks the anniversary of the beginning of the United States’ second-greatest foreign policy debacle: The 2003 invasion of Iraq. Ten years on, the invasion and its aftermath still reverberate, in our domestic and foreign politics, and in the lives of the families who lost a son or daughter and in the scarred bodies and minds of those whose survived.

More than any other single factor, Barack Obama’s opposition to the invasion propelled him to the presidency. It gave credibility to his promise of change, and Hillary Clinton could never shake her endorsement of the war. The false pretenses for the invasion, the incompetence of the occupation and the changing rationale for our remaining in Iraq, destroyed George W. Bush’s presidency and helped to erase the Republican’s long-held advantage on foreign policy.

And what have we wrought through our war in Iraq? How would most Iraqis answer the question: Are you better off today than you were 10 years ago? My guess is that even if that question is answered in the affirmative, the margin would be very thin. The Iraqis, too, paid a high price for Saddam Hussein’s removal. Would they do it again, if given the choice? And the Middle East, where Bush once promised that Iraq would be a shining example of freedom and start a contagion of democracy that would sweep the region? It’s a more complicated answer than saying Bush’s fantasy was idiotic. The Arab Spring and the uprising in Syria show the region’s continued ferment. But one thing that does seem clear: Iran is stronger than ever, and the counter-weight of Iraq is gone.

Why did the United States invade Iraq? There were, of course, a group of Bush advisers who were looking for any provocation to topple Hussein and whose advice was slanted by that imperative. But I think that President Bush’s decision was more complex. Yes, he was inexperienced and relied too heavily on those whose steered him into war. But Kurt Eichenwald’s book “500 Days” offers a more subtle explanation. The book covers in dispassionate detail the panic and confusion that surrounded the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. It gives you a sense of how scared and impotent Bush felt, especially in the face of  the anthrax attacks. Terrorism seemed to be imminent anywhere at anytime.

So Bush did what empires have done for centuries when faced with an uncertain threat: attack. In Bush’s case, he attacked the wrong enemy, broke the china, in Colin Powell’s phrase, and never could clean it up.