This article is part of the Foreign Affairs Iraq Retrospective.
Iraqi policemen guard a burning pipeline near Kerbala, 2004. (Faleh Kheiber / Courtesy Reuters)
Ten years ago this week, the United States and a few of its allies invaded Iraq, writing the final chapter in Washington’s checkered decades-long relationship with Saddam Hussein. Thanks to problems of both conception and execution, the Iraq war ended up becoming the most egregious failure in half a century of American foreign policy, costing a vast amount of blood and treasure for all concerned and tarnishing the United States’ reputation for international leadership, honesty, morality, and even basic competence.
A swift and successful invasion dissolved into chaos once Baghdad fell: liberation turned into occupation; local uncertainty turned into insurgency and then civil war. Four long years after the toppling of Saddam’s statue in Firdos Square, a new and better-resourced American strategy managed to build on some positive local trends and stabilize the situation, so that by the end of the decade Iraq had pulled back from the brink and gained a chance at a better future. But even then nothing was guaranteed, as low-level violence and political turmoil continued; the withdrawal of the last American troops in December 2011 left behind a deeply troubled country.
How could this happen? How could the strongest power in modern history, fighting a rematch against a much lesser opponent at a time and place of its own choosing, find itself yet again woefully unprepared for a war’s aftermath and stumble so badly as a result?
The perversity of such an outcome belies simple explanations, which is why neither the George W. Bush administration’s most passionate defenders nor its most passionate critics are good guides to the case. The problems that emerged after Saddam’s ouster cannot be written off as random acts of God. They were entirely predictable, and indeed were repeatedly predicted by many people inside and outside the U.S. government. This makes the failure to plan