Five valid Iraq critiques and five debates that still matter

Since I posted about the myths promulgated by critics of the Iraq war, it is only fair that I follow-up and demonstrate that I do know that (a) war supporters did not have a monopoly on truth either and (b) there are plenty of worthy debates about Iraq that could inform current policy challenges.

My "top five" mistakes that the Bush administration made in the handling of the war (setting aside the obvious ones related to the intelligence failures of overestimating the extent to which Saddam had reconstituted his WMD programs):

1. Prewar: Not having a formal NSC-level meeting where the pros and cons of war were debated before the President after which a clear NSC vote and presidential decision was made. There was, of course, a policy process reviewing options in Iraq and that process identified many problems, some of which were avoided and some of which never arose. Still other problems that did arise were raised as possibilities but not given the attention they deserved. The entire process, however, was kept compartmentalized and somewhat truncated to avoid leaks and thus interfere with the diplomatic track. In retrospect, that was a mistake. I think had there been a more formal process with more extensive consideration of the pros and cons and what-ifs the Bush administration still might have roughly followed the path they took, but I believe some of the later struggles might have been less of a surprise, allowing the administration to adjust more quickly.

2. Prewar: Not thoroughly debating what we would do if the Iraqi state security apparatus collapsed, thus invalidating the war-plan's assumptions that we could count on around 150 thousand Iraqi troops to handle stability operations and that we could just hand over Iraq to a hastily assembled Iraqi governing structure. General Franks' war plan expected many Iraqi forces to surrender en masse as happened in Desert Storm and called for the coalition to use those Iraqi units for basic security and law enforcement in the immediate aftermath of Hussein's toppling. However, rather than maintaining intact, the Iraqi units collapsed, leaving a huge manpower hole for the post-invasion phase of the plan. In other words, the problem with the war plan was not that there were inadequate troops for security and stabilization under Plan A. The problem was that inadequate attention had been given to considering Plan B, should Plan A turn out to be unrealistic, as happened.

3. Post-invasion: Not continuing to pay the Iraqi army even though it dissolved and deciding instead to start totally fresh. That decision was reversed a few weeks later, but by that time the damage was done and the seeds of the insurgency were sown. I think it would have been better to continue to pay the old Iraqi army from the outset while trying to rebuild the army.

4. Post-invasion: Allowing General Franks to walk away and hand over the Iraq mission to General Sanchez. General Franks deserves credit for crafting a remarkably successful invasion plan -- one that defied the critics, many of whom argued that the invasion would be far more difficult and bloody than it was. But he should have been obliged to stay until Iraq was on a more secure trajectory. Transitioning to a new command at such a delicate time would have been difficult even if Franks' successor had been supremely capable. By most accounts, General Sanchez was not capable of handling the mission, and so the transition was doubly disruptive.

And since all of those mistakes took place before I officially joined the Bush Administration NSC in 2005, I should add one that took place on my watch:

5. Post-2005: Failure to engage critics on false claims about the war -- the reluctance to "relitigate the past" -- which allowed the myths to get entrenched. The Bush team acted as if the successful 2004 election settled all historical debates about Iraq and largely ignored the relentless partisan critique that continued without interruption. But the partisan attacks took their toll, and by 2007 or even 2006, President Bush's bully pulpit was all but exhausted.

Of course, I could easily come up with five or ten more errors (just as I could easily come up with five or ten more popular-but-flawed critiques of the Iraq war). And I am not saying that if all of these mistakes had been corrected that the Iraq mission would have gone swimmingly.

I do think, however, that it might have gone better and I am confident that absent those (and other errors) the country would be in a better place to debate the really important issues that remain rather than get stuck on secondary ones.

Which brings me to my second list of five: five debates that still matter. In the vigorous debate over Iraq before the invasion (and another one of the myths is that there was no such public debate), there were many legitimate arguments raised. The arduous course of the war has raised still other valid concerns. Many of these are quite relevant to the new challenges we face. Here are ones I find particularly compelling:

1. How should presidents decide under conditions of intelligence uncertainty? This was the nub of the pre-war policy debate. To my knowledge, there was no major voice in the U.S. policymaking process that correctly guessed the truth about Iraq's WMD program: that Saddam was bluffing that he had kept his WMD stockpile (and may have believed that he was better positioned to restart his programs than he really was because some of his subordinates may have been deceiving him) so as to deter the Iranians. But he was also hoping to persuade enough of the international community that he had fulfilled the UNSC resolution requirements so that the international community would lift the sanctions/inspections, at which point he would quickly reconstitute the forbidden programs. No one posited that as the situation we faced. There were, however, many who argued that we did not know for sure just how extensive Saddam Hussein's WMD programs were and so we should not act until we had greater certainty. The counterargument was that we would never gain such certainty until it was too late. Both sides in that debate had a reasonable case to make and both are directly relevant to the current conundrum with Iran. What should we do about Iran when there are irreducible uncertainties about Iran's progress and intentions toward a nuclear weapon?

2. Could we have lived with an Iraqi WMD capability by simply containing him as we contained the Soviet Union or are currently trying to contain North Korea? Even more war opponents were willing to stipulate that Hussein had a formidable WMD arsenal but argued that this did not require war because we could use classical deterrence and containment tools to manage the threat. The counterarguments were that Hussein was less deterrable than the Soviet Union and that the secondary security concerns raised by a growing Iraqi arsenal would destabilize the region -- and leave us vulnerable to a terrorist WMD threat, which would not be so deterrable. This is precisely the issue in dispute today regarding Iran, with many of the old Iraq critics making the same arguments. Interestingly, President Bush's role in making the case that containment is not an acceptable option is now being fulfilled by President Obama. There is an eerie echo between Obama's Iran rhetoric and Bush's Iraq rhetoric.

3. Is chaos caused by action harder to manage than chaos caused by inaction? One important aspect of the neoconservative argument regarding Iraq was the claim that it would be easier to influence events in Iraq if we took decisive action than if we delayed while threats gathered. It turned out that Iraq was far more difficult to manage than war-supporters believed it would be. However, we now are conducting something of a test-case of the opposite side of the proposition. The Obama Administration has studiously avoided decisive action on Syria and the result is a downward security trajectory in Syria that looks very much like the problems that arose in Iraq. There is a bloody sectarian civil war, radical AQ-sympathizers are growing in power, Iran has increased its influence, the stability of the region is threatened, and the United States has lost much credibility in the eyes of regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, not to mention inspiring resentment among the Syrian people. The United States may not bear as much moral responsibility in Syria since it did not invade and topple Assad, but will it avoid political responsibility for managing the consequences if Syria explodes/implodes, as seems likely? And if we face that worst-case scenario, will the chaos produced by post-collapse Syria be any easier to manage than the chaos produced by post-invasion Iraq?

4. Can we do regime change and walk away? The original Bush administration plan for managing Iraq was to topple Hussein, rapidly create some new governing authority (made up principally of exiles), and then hand over the security apparatus of the Iraqi state to them to let them build the new Iraq. This plan collapsed when the Iraqi security apparatus collapsed. But President Obama has tried something similar with the lead-from-behind approach in Libya. Despite the knock-on effects in Mali and Benghazi, which have taken the bloom off the rose of lead-from-behind, it is probable that the Obama administration still feels like they made the right bet. Would such a plan work in Syria? What about North Korea? Or Iran?

5. Do we encourage the behavior we desire from recalcitrant partners by assuring them of our continued support or by assuring them that we are leaving them? Despite campaigning on a slash-and-burn critique of Bush's Iraq policy, President Obama ended up mostly following the strategy on Iraq that he inherited but for two key differences: (i) the Obama team mishandled negotiations with Prime Minister Maliki over a new Status of Forces Agreement; and (ii) where Bush tried to cajole better behavior by reassuring the Iraqis that they could count on long-term U.S. support, Obama tried to cajole better behavior by threatening Iraqis with U.S. withdrawal/abandonment. Obama's approach in Iraq failed, and as a result today many of the gains of the surge have eroded. It may be too late to win those gains back in Iraq, and, in any case, the focus of the policy debate has shifted to Afghanistan. Here the Obama administration seems on track to following the same script. Will it work better in Afghanistan than it worked in Iraq?

The bottom line of this post is the same as the bottom line of my earlier one: There are reasonable critiques and reasonable debates to have on Iraq and as a country we would be better served to focus on them rather than on the caricatures that dominate the conventional wisdom.

Peter Feaver is a Professor of Political Science, Director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies, and Director of the Program in American Grand Strategy at Duke University. This commentary was originally published by Foreign Policy.