During last week's presidential debate, President George W. Bush insisted that when it came to Iraq we must "be steadfast and resolved [and] never waver." The president is right. Unfortunately, his own Iraq policy has been anything but steadfast or unwavering. Not only has he changed the fundamental rationale for the war, but he has repeatedly changed course during the postwar period — with disastrous results.
It may be hard to recall amidst all the hubbub of who said what when about the Iraq war, but the reason Bush and his advisers gave for going to war was Iraq's refusal to disarm the weapons of mass destruction they assured us he possessed. For the better part of a year prior to the onset of fighting in March 2003, the administration told the American people that Saddam Hussein had WMD and was acquiring ever more — including nuclear weapons. He had used them in the past and would surely pass them on to terrorists who would use them against us in the future. And because Iraq would not disarm as long as Saddam was in power, war was the only answer.
Of course, we all know what happened. We went to war. We deposed Saddam from power. And we found no weapons. No chemical shells, no mobile bioweapon labs, no reconstituted nuclear program. But rather than admitting a mistake (or even reflecting on it), Bush changed the rationale for going to war — which was now to liberate the Iraqi people rather than to disarm Iraq. A noble goal, to be sure, but not exactly the reason Bush gave to justify sending America's best to fight and die in the sands of Mesopotamia. Even Paul Wolfowitz, the intellectual godfather of the Iraq war, admitted in May 2003 that doing away with an evil regime was "not a reason to put American kids' lives at risk."
If liberation was the reason for war — and a case can be made that securing freedom and democracy in Iraq could have a salutary impact on our ability to win the war of ideas that lies at the heart of our fight against jihadist terrorism — the president and his administration have been singularly inept at getting the job done. In fact, their repeated changes in course made clear they had no idea how to go about it.
The administration began the war thinking Iraq was like France in 1944 — our troops would enter Baghdad and be greeted like liberators. Power would quickly be transferred to a trusted group of exiles. American troops and a coterie of advisers would assist the effort for some months, and then head home. U.S. force levels would decline to 50,000 to 60,000 within six months and all troops would be home by Christmas 2003. "They told us to bring two suits," one civilian adviser later recounted. "We thought we would be walking into functioning ministries, that we would fire the Baathists in the top jobs, and get the trains running again in a couple of months."
Of course, Iraq was nothing like France in 1944, and the Iraqi exiles were no Charles de Gaulle. Rather than a functioning state, Iraq had collapsed as a result of 35 years of brutal one-man rule, a quarter century of living on a war footing, and a decade-plus of sanctions. Recognizing the new reality, Bush shifted course. Rather than France 1944, Iraq would be Germany 1945. We would occupy the country, create security, rebuild the basic infrastructure, write a constitution, hold elections, and only then transfer sovereignty back to the Iraqi people. Bush appointed a shrewd diplomat, L. Paul Bremer, as the new pro-consul, who set out to duplicate America's German success in Iraq. On the walls of his office, Bremer even had a chart titled "Milestones: Iraq and Germany" to compare progress in the two rebuilding efforts.
Of course, Iraq was not Germany, either. It hadn't been defeated in war, and the Iraqi people wanted nothing of the occupation that America delivered. Many rebelled, as did Iraq's most prominent leaders, who, like Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, wanted Iraqis to choose a legitimate government. So Bush once again changed course. Iraq was to be Afghanistan. It would regain sovereignty, and be run by a leader of our choosing. Elections would be held, and only then would a constitution be written. In other words, the exact opposite of the Bremer model!
Ever since Saddam Hussein was ousted, Bush and his advisers have made their postwar Iraq policy on the fly. The result has been disastrous. Small-scale opposition has blossomed into a full-blown insurgency that touches every part of the country. Violence is rising. So are the number of people killed — American, foreigner, and above all Iraqi.
For all the rhetoric to the contrary, there has been nothing steadfast, resolute, or unwavering about Bush's policies toward postwar Iraq. The only thing consistent about these policies is that they have been consistently wrong.
Ivo H. Daalder is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a special adviser on national security policy at the Center for American Progress.