WASHINGTON -- As President Barack Obama announced an imminent end to the American war in Iraq on Friday, long-time critics looked back on a nearly nine-year military campaign that provided lesson after lesson about what not to do ever again.
Critics say that the combination of an invasion launched on false pretenses, followed by a postwar plan based on false assumptions, resulted in a long, bitter and costly war that, with the one notable exception of eliminating Saddam Hussein, accomplished pretty much the opposite of what it set out to achieve.
"This should be, to my mind, a cautionary tale on the level with Vietnam," said Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the progressive National Security Network.
"I think it was probably the largest strategic error we ever made," said Brian Katulis, a national security expert at the left-leaning Center for American Progress. "And it was self-inflicted. And the blunder was shared by Democrats and Republicans alike -- people sometimes forget that."
Possibly the single biggest lesson for the American public is "how relatively easily they were stampeded into a very unwise and illegal war," said Juan Cole, a Mideast expert and blogger at the University of Michigan.
And it was a war that came at an enormous cost in blood and treasure. More than $1 trillion has been spent, more than 4,400 American military lives have been lost, many more troops have been horribly wounded, and more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed.
"This was not just bad decision-making, this was bad decision-making that cost the lives of over 4,000 service members," Richard Allen Smith, vice chairman of the progressive VoteVets.org group, told HuffPost. "For those of us who served, it's not just 4,000 random dudes, it's 4,000 people that we knew, who were somebody's father or son, or mother or daughter."
Cole said he believes that all the things that went wrong after the invasion stemmed from the original, misbegotten decision to go to war in the first place -- despite the fact, he added, that Iraq hadn't attacked the U.S., wasn't behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks and posed no immediate threat to the international order. The ensuing chaos, civil war and rise of al-Qaida "were all kind of fruit of the poisonous tree," he said.
And despite the hopes of inexperienced 20-something Bush loyalists who thought they could build a Jeffersonian democracy there, the U.S. leaves behind "a very fragile and wounded society," Cole said.
"My basic take on Iraq is what we're seeing is in many ways more of the same. The basic underlying conflicts, based especially on sectarian and religious divides, have not been resolved," said Paul R. Pillar, a former senior CIA analyst who now teaches at Georgetown University.
Due to widespread ethnic cleansing, Shiite and Sunni Muslims rarely live near each other anymore, but they are still in an ongoing battle for power. Meanwhile, the Kurds have established a nearly independent state of their own -- even while provoking cross-border attacks from Turkey.
"I think the status quo is an ongoing disaster," Cole said. "You still have high rates of bombings and political violence." And further ethnic cleansing or war between rival militias could be just one shrine bombing away, he said.
"To some degree the Iraqis were given an opportunity with the fall of Saddam," Cole said, adding that the U.S. military occupation then made political progress nearly impossible. "To have normal politics at a time when you have Marines on patrol in major cities, that was difficult," he said.
"The message to the American people is there are a lot of problems in Iraq that we never should have presumed to solve ourselves," Pillar said. "The war has been one of the biggest manifestations of American hubris in terms of believing mistakenly that we could remake another society forcefully."
Neoconservatives championed the war in part because they believed that the projection of American power is essential for national security -- and good for the world.
But instead, the war left America weaker, both materially and in the eyes of the world, critics say.
"We should be glad that this phase is coming to an end, but we should be aware that we're still living with the consequences in real and unpleasant ways," Hurlburt said. Among those consequences: "Iran empowered; Muslim world suspicions of us heightened; a terrorism problem where there wasn't a problem before; enormous pressures put on our military; lives lost, American and Iraqi."
"We certainly eliminated Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, but I think on balance, if you're looking at this from a U.S. national security perspective, it's still a net negative," Katulis said. "The net negatives are not only the cost, the lives lost, the expansion of Iranian influence westward, the chaos that is still in the Iraqi society," he said. There's also "the broader damage to our reputation throughout the world," he added.
Part of that damage likely stems from the original decision to go to war. As Pillar put it: "This war played directly into the extremist narrative according to which the United States is out to kill Muslims, occupy their land and plunder their resources."
But even more damage has come from the inability to achieve the stated goals in Iraq, Katulis said. "And as a consequence we look weaker," he said. "I have to laugh when I hear conservatives say Obama has made America look weak around the world."
"Nobody doubts that we have awesome military power, but it's a blunt instrument, and that's where I think the misunderstanding was," Hurlburt said. True power involves the "sophisticated application of no more force than necessary," she said.
Hurlburt drew a contrast between Iraq and the nearby country in the news this week: "We applied so little force in Libya, and that looks like a demonstration of our power," she said, "while we applied so much force in Iraq, and that looks like a demonstration of our weakness."
And as far as the region goes, the war may have only exacerbated a problem the U.S. may need to face in the future. "Amidst all we're hearing today about Iran, the Iraq war was the single biggest gift to the Islamic Republic of Iran, in terms of extending its influence in the Persian Gulf," Pillar said.
Saddam's Iraq was Iran's chief rival; and key elements within the current Iraqi government are now more sympathetic to Iran than they are to the United States.
When neoconservatives bemoan the fact that the U.S. troop departure could embolden Iran, Pillar said, they should be reminded that "our presence in Iraq has expanded and extended Iran's influence, rather than the contrary."
Of the many lessons of the Iraq war, Pillar has determined that the single most important one is not to launch a war without the appropriate deliberative process.
"I think historians 50 or 100 years from now will find this one of the most extraordinary aspects of the whole thing: that the previous administration launched the war with no process for deliberating about whether this was a good idea," he said.
Indeed, despite Bush's insistence in his autobiography that he agonized over his decision to invade Iraq, there is now an abundant amount of documentation -- in the form of leaks, unclassified memos, witness interviews and other people's memoirs -- to prove that he and Vice President Cheney were dead-set on war long before they sent in the troops.
It's also hard to make the case that the pretenses under which the war was declared were the result of innocent mistakes. The Center for Public Integrity, for instance, compiled a database documenting 935 false statements by Bush, Cheney and other top administration officials in what it called a "carefully orchestrated campaign of misinformation about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq."
Despite everything, Smith, vice chairman of the VoteVets.org group, is adamant about one thing: "Even with a situation like Iraq where a war is fought for all the wrong reasons, no soldier or marine died in vain," he said.
"Everyone that served in that conflict served for a valiant purpose, ensuring the well-being of those to their left and their right," he said. "They didn't die in vain, because they died fighting to protect their comrades."
Cole, meanwhile, said he has no doubt about what would have happened in Iraq if Bush hadn't invaded: "I think Iraq would have been Libya," he said. "When the Arab Spring came along, if Saddam had still been there, it's almost certain that the Shiites and the Kurds would have risen up against him in the past eight months." And the U.S. -- presumably still maintaining a no-fly zone over the country -- would have stopped Saddam's tanks and helicopter gunships, guaranteeing his demise, Cole added.
The endstate would be far superior to what it is today, Cole said. "The revolution would have been made by the Iraqi people, there would be no foreign troops on the ground, and it would be much more likely that they could come to a compromise with each other," he said.
"You would not have had the emergence of al-Qaida," he said. And Saddam's army might have quickly been reassembled, rather than being disastrously disbanded, as it was by the Bush administration a few months after the invasion. "You wouldn't have had all that turmoil and looting that flowed from the disbanding of the Army," he said.
"In Libya, order didn't completely break down like it did under the impact of the American invasion," Cole said. "Iraq would have been much better off with a Libya-style uprising."
Dan Froomkin is senior Washington correspondent for The Huffington Post. You can send him an email, bookmark his page; subscribe to his RSS feed, follow him on Twitter, friend him on Facebook, and/or become a fan and get email alerts when he writes.
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