We couldn't wait to invade Iraq. Back in 2003 the George W. Bush administration, still smarting from its failure to prevent the September 11, 2001 attacks despite detailed security warnings, was suddenly so eager to start a war with someone, anyone, they picked Saddam Hussein (who most observers knew had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks).
Bush and his inner circle really wanted to punish someone. They wanted to be seen to punish someone. They assured us Saddam was pursuing nuclear weapons and that we'd find ample proof when we smoked him out.
You know what happened next. Saddam refused to believe that an American president would be so foolish as to wage war on him.
Shock and awe saw the entire Iraqi army fold like a deck of cards. We let them fold too.
We left one million Iraqi soldiers suddenly unemployed to walk home. Then we marched past them allowing them to feel powerless and resentful as we occupied their nation.
The Baathist government, which had subdued the sectarian violence between Shias and Sunnis for decades immediately collapsed. Saddam, looking stunned by his stark reversal of fortune, was captured in December 2003 and executed by a military court three years later. We had no one prepared and waiting to replace him.
Within weeks of the war's start it was all coming unglued of course. In the political vacuum following Saddam's death the long simmering violence between Shia and Sunni Muslims erupted again and U.S. and coalition forces couldn't stop it, nor could they stop the violent insurgency that erupted against them.
The terrifying torture at Abu Ghraib made the headlines. Over 4,000 U.S. troops were killed; 32 thousand more seriously injured. Every hour taxpayers in the U.S. are still paying $365,500 for the cost of war in Iraq. Every hour.
What the Bush administration had apparently forgotten was that when you clear the decks of the old political players you give new ones a golden opportunity. Saddam had been tactically and militarily vicious but his regime was not strongly religious. Now, though, we had blown the door off a Pandora’s box of long simmering religious resentments just waiting to explode.
It become clear very quickly that there was a terrifying senselessness to the kind of violence that was appearing on Iraq's streets. Men and women, boys and girls, strapped bombs to their backs or had bombs strapped to them. Many sought instant martyrdom, finding death and the promise of eternal life preferable to living in a country whose future had been harpooned.
The poverty, the violence, the long festering sectarian strife, the occupation, the bombed out cities, the countless ruined lives – the Bush administration had planned for none of it. If they thought of Iraq's future at all, they told us Iraqis would welcome us as liberators. Their oil would pay for our war.
But they didn't welcome us and their oil fields were set on fire, and we never did find a trace of those intimidating weapons of mass destruction. In fact the truth is, though its utter incompetence and lack of foresight, the Bush administration's invasion actually helped give an opening to the biggest weapon of mass destruction the region has seen in decades: the Islamic State (ISIS).
Deposed from power following the fall of Saddam, the Sunni minority began to support ISIS. Iraq, destabilized by war, had already become a safe haven and a recruiting and training ground for fundamentalist Al Qaeda affiliates. Meanwhile, America’s regional allies funded extremist groups with predictable results.
When it comes to the Iraqi and Syrian civil wars, no one can say their hands are clean, but there is no doubt that our regional allies provided the material support that allowed ISIS to grow into a threat to the entire region.
It took Bush years to grasp the folly of what he had done. In 2014 on Face the Nation, the former president said he had one regret about his decision to invade Iraq in 2003: the rise of ISIS which followed the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011.
“A violent group of people have risen up again,” Bush said. The Islamic State, he added, “is al-Qaida plus” and “they need to be defeated.”
When asked if he would have gone to war against Saddam if he had known how flawed the intelligence information he had about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was, Bush said he was not really sure.
Soon his brother Jeb Bush will take the nation’s stage in the hope of containing along the path his sibling started. We should all think very, very hard about whether or not we will follow him.