Most of the mistakes I've heard people complain about are examples of lose-lose situations. For example, the looting in Baghdad when we first invaded. The commanders could:
For the most part, the terror war in Iraq is not an insurgency at all; it is an unconventional war waged against us by the terror masters in Iran and Syria and Saudi Arabia. We refused to see it, we deliberately and systematically blinded ourselves to it, and this "we" encompasses them all, president and vice president, national security advisers, secretaries of defense and state and their top aides ..., and the Intelligence (sic) Community.
- Look weak as public resources and priceless artifacts are stolen and destroyed
- Kill hundred of looters, looking like heartless murderers of boys wanting to feed their families, and creating blood feuds with the Shiite clans we needed on our side to create a new government.
For all the complaints about option 1 I have yet to see an explanation of what's so good about option 2.
Or disbanding the old Iraqi army:
- Put thousands of committed Baathists out on the street with nothing better to do than launch attacks against the Americans.
- Keep the old officer corps, force the Shiite deserters to return to duty. and quell endless rumors of impending coups from one or another Baathist general.
Remember how the Shiites were betrayed when they rose up in 1991, so that a military coup could replace Saddam with a new Sunni dictator the Saudis could live with? Making some decisions as "We Mean It" gestures to convince the Shiites that this democracy stuff was serious was necessary. Was adding manpower to the insurgents worth it? Hope so. This is again hardly an obviously wrong decision. (Assuming your strategy is to fight Islamofascism with democracy--but if it's not there's no point in arguing tactical decisions when you're using different goals)
De-Baathification--same as previous, really.
Setting up a government in Iraq. This had more than two options considered:
- Set up an Iraqi provisional government led by the existing resistance leaders (supported by Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and most of the actual neocons)
- Find a general with a good mustache and put him in charge (favored by most of the CIA and State Dept bureaucracy, and the Saudis)
- Have an American procounsul in charge until we're totally confident the Iraqis can handle democracy
- Have an American procounsul in charge until the Iraqis have the minimum political organization to start a democracy
(Powell was apparently pushing 3 or 4, I'm not sure which)
We went with number 4, which has had various foreseeable downsides, not least electing confessional parties instead of policy-oriented ones. Number 2 directly conflicted with the long-term democracy strategy. Number 1 was a big roll of the dice--faster democracy if those guys could pull off competent government, more chaos if they chose revenge or personal greed. Number 3 meant more political flack from those wanting a shorter occupation and accusing the USA of seizing the oil. So, what was the best option? Number 4 may still be the least bad.
Some former supporters of the war have recanted on the grounds that it was longer and bloodier and messier than they'd expected. I can only wonder WTF they were expecting. What the heck does the word "war" mean to those people? I've read enough history to define it as death, pain, and chaos, something that can only be considered good compared to worse alternatives. The choice was never "Invade Iraq: Yes/No?" The choice now isn't "Stay in Iraq: Yes/No?" The choice is among an array of potential disasters, where inaction can be the worst choice.
The mistakes I hold against Bush? Letting the warnings get buried in speech transcripts on whitehouse.gov, instead of getting out to the people who need to hear them (the media wasn't going to do it). Diverting political capital to beefing up his party's support instead of putting all his effort into the war (Social Security reform? During a war?). Thinking that 51% was enough support for the war, and not trying to bring more people on board. Kicking hard decisions down the road (see the Ledeen bit above) in the hope a miracle would let him avoid dealing with it. Not asking for the resources to support an offensive after picking an offensive strategy (Yes, that would have created even more screaming about a draft. Suck it up). Thinking that he'd succeeded in getting people's support and could stop asking for it after being reelected.
This last is the most important. A general once said, "The courage of the soldiers must be reborn daily. There is nothing that is so variable." In a democracy the courage of the people also matters, and must be urged to life every day. Letting that responsibility be pushed aside by domestic politics is Bush's greatest failing. Possibly--and I hope this is true--he's done enough for momentum to carry us on to a good holding position. If not, the hope of reforming the Arab world will have failed, and the responsibility will be his.