On May 1, 2003, a few weeks after the invasion of Iraq, President George W. Bush made a dramatic landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln, an aircraft carrier then floating off the coast of California. Decked out in the finest flyboy fashion, he proclaimed, "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended." Completing the brilliant photo op was a giant banner reading "Mission Accomplished."
Here we are, some three years later, and only this much is clear to all Americans, regardless of their position on the war: The Bush administration massively underestimated the complexities of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. In late 2003, the Pentagon estimated that U.S. troops would be drawn down to about 100,000 by the end of the next spring. By mid-May 2004, troops had been cranked up to 140,000—roughly the same number that are still over there. The Associated Press reported earlier this year that the number of Sunni insurgents is believed to be somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000—the same number as two years ago.
George Bush is notorious for refusing to acknowledge his mistakes. But in a March radio address aimed at the two-thirds of Americans who told Washington Post-ABC News pollsters that the president doesn't have "a plan for victory," he noted, "More fighting and sacrifice will be required." Bush still believes in "complete victory," but as speculation grows about bombing runs on Iran and possibly Syria, it's not certain what victory means, or how U.S. forces might bring it about. Our cover package, "Three Views on Iraq, Three Years Later" (page 26), features a trio of analysts discussing what went wrong and how—or whether—it can be fixed.
Contributing Editor Michael Young, opinion editor of the most influential English-language paper in the Middle East, Lebanon's Daily Star, supported the invasion but now fears the U.S. has become bogged down by its failures. "Many in the U.S. have already headed for the exits," he writes, which "doesn't bode well for open societies in the Middle East." Leon Hadar, author of last year's Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East, counsels that the wisest course of action is "constructive disengagement" with "the Islamic Green Crescent of Instability ranging from the Balkans to the borders of China." Such a policy, he argues, would be seen as a sign of strength "if it's bolstered by an active containment policy that makes it clear that those who dare harm us will be punished."
The Cato Institute's Tom G. Palmer, a frequent traveler to post-Saddam Iraq, offers up "Six Facts About Iraq," the most important one being "it's impossible to predict Iraq's future." In his travels, he's found encouraging developments in Kurdistan and elsewhere, even though he's under no illusions about the likelihood of peace. He does offer up a rare point of consensus: "Libertarians should be eager to assist the Iraqis in creating a free society." Here's hoping that the Lamp of Liberty, the group Palmer cofounded with Arab colleagues to spread libertarian ideas in Iraq, shines a little light on a dark part of the globe.