03/28/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

An Analyst Looks At Back On Iraq With Sadness and Scorn

As the war in Iraq completes its fifth year this week, The Huffington Post is featuring interviews with and essays by those journalists, elected officials, policymakers and former military officials who spoke out early and boldly against what they saw as an inevitable disaster. They join our Iraq Honor Roll.

When the Iraq war began in the early months of 2003, Brian Katulis was serving as a senior associate for the polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research. Feeling compelled to study and observe the action, he traveled to the Middle East for the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House. While in Iraq, Egypt, and the Palestinian territories he was reaffirmed in his earlier conclusion: the war was strategically and philosophically a terrible blunder. Now five years later, Katulis has emerged as one of the foremost analysts on Iraq and U.S. National Security. A senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, he offered a detailed analysis of how the war went wrong.

How was it that the Democratic Congress, now so united against the war, was divided in the fall of 2002?

In the fall of 2002, I heard some of the worst arguments for why it was necessary to go to war in Iraq. And you can go to one particular article in the outlook section of the Washington Post, where a Democratic politician essentially argued that the war in Iraq would not be a big issue. That Enron and a whole host of other issues would be our strengths so we just needed to vote for this resolution, take the war off the table, and go to our core competencies.... This is the kind of the advice, even to 2004, that the Democratic consulting class would try to offer. And it is tied up in this Democratic national security deficit disorder: Taking the frame conservatives have set up for us, the post-Vietnam notion that Democrats are weak on defense.

When, from a tactical standpoint, did the U.S. start stumbling in Iraq?

I can't stress how much I thought it was such a dangerous strategic mistake to even go to war. One person I know who was working at the Pentagon, about three months before the start of the war, said that this war was going to lead to a tsunami of democracy in the Middle East... It was clear to me that even before the war began if that was the fundamental premise, then from that starting point you had a whole host of mistakes.
You had the mistake of disbanding the Iraqi army, you had the mistake of getting rid of all the government jobs, and then I think the one pivotal moment was when the looting happened. Very early on, it sent the clear signal to the Iraqi people that we don't care about your security or prosperity. And it turned a whole host of people against us. And you never get another chance to make a first impression.

Does Abu Ghraib fall into that category of giving the impression the Iraqi people that it was all about us and not about them?

Well, that came later in 2004. And I actually think by that moment, whatever we had done in Abu Ghraib confirmed whatever the perceptions that many Iraqis already had of us... Iraqis in June and July, when we interviewed them, thought that's what Americans were saying was poor planning on the post-war reconstruction front. Many Iraqis thought: 'you are doing this us intentionally. You came here to occupy us and steal our oil. You are pushing an agenda from Zionists, all of these things that were a lot of conspiracy theories. And then when Abu Ghraib happened... it was inconceivable to the Iraqis that we could get rid of a vicious dictator in a span of a couple of weeks who had dominated the country for decades and we could keep the lights on.

This notion of democratizing the Middle East; is it possible for Iraqis to function as a democracy?

Not while we are there. Based on my own experience on the ground 2003 and 2004... I came to believe that people in the Middle East want a better system of governance. And it is largely based upon the sort of principles we have in our government. And I think Iraqis can do that. Us staying there impedes that process. And that is the reverse of Bush's argument. But I think, at its core, if you are trying to force this from the outside at a gunpoint it is actually slowing the process. It is strengthening the hands of sectarian actors and it is strengthening the hands of religious extremists, who use our presence to build their political case at home. And I think it is better for us to get out of the way.

What about the truly fundamental neocon notion that we could go into Iraq, take out Saddam, put in a new government with demands that it act "democratic" and then leave?

I don't agree with the premise of your question because yes, Saddam was a major obstacle, but there are other things that are clearly major obstacles to democratic governance, much of which we can't control. Those are: societies building institutions themselves, the rule of law, some sort of basic order, treating women and religious minorities with equal respect and guaranteeing them rights. And I believe that there enough Iraqis who want that. But we simply can't do it by getting rid of dictators, going around the world willy nilly. And then there was no plan... almost from day one is was built on a false premise.

With all these arguments and with all the poor planning and with all the missteps, why does a substantial portion of our country - somewhere between 30 and 40 percent - still think this is a winning idea?

There is a great deal of misinformation that still exists. The same types of percentages I do believe still believe that Saddam was still involved in 9/11, when the 9/11 commission says that's not the case. There are a whole host of individuals who still think that the actions that were taking in 2003 were necessary and a legitimate response to 9/11. And I think that's the fundamental difference between progressives and Democrats versus conservatives and Republic: the unnecessary war of choice in Iraq is something that 35 percent still believe was necessary, facts be damned... and the vast majority of the country believes it was a strategic error of historic proportions.

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