In marked contrast to the optimism that the Bush administration and its supporters expressed about developments in Iraq as late as the spring of 2006, only a few diehards now deny that the security environment there is dire.  When Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) asked secretary of defense nominee Robert Gates whether the United States was winning in Iraq, Gates replied bluntly: “No, sir.”  The Bush-appointed bipartisan Iraq Study Group epitomized the new pessimism, noting in its December 2006 report that the situation in Iraq is “grave and deteriorating.”

There is no shortage of suggestions about what the United States should do going forward.  Unfortunately, many of the loudest voices belong to the same people who prodded the Bush administration into invading and occupying Iraq in the first place.  If we are to extricate the United States from the Iraqi quagmire, the first step must be to ignore the “experts” who led us into that morass and begin to listen to real experts who correctly warned about that debacle.

It is clear in retrospect that the administration and its supporters miscalculated badly.  President Bush’s May 1, 2003, speech aboard the aircraft carrier USS Lincoln beneath a large “Mission Accomplished” banner was the perfect symbol for the misplaced optimism that pervaded the administration and its hawkish political allies.

Kenneth Adelman, head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency during the Reagan years, famously predicted that the mission would be “a cakewalk.”  Other advocates of the war were equally ebullient.  It would be like Paris in 1944, with the Iraqis greeting American troops as liberators, not occupiers.  In April 2003, pro-war syndicated columnist Mark Steyn predicted that “in a year’s time Baghdad and Basra will have a lower crime rate than most British cities.”  Furthermore, there would be “no widespread resentment at or resistance of the Western military presence.”

Warnings about the deep ethno-religious divisions in Iraq were summarily dismissed.  On April 1, 2003, Weekly Standard editor William Kristol opined that “there’s been a certain amount of pop sociology in America . . . that the Shi’a can’t get along with the Sunni, and the Shi’a in Iraq just want to establish some kind of Islamic fundamentalist regime.  There’s almost no evidence of that at all.”  A month later, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer stated confidently that “the United States is in a position to bring about a unique and potentially revolutionary development in the Arab world: a genuinely pluralistic, open and free society.”  Other proponents of the war assumed that Iraq not only would be a collegial democracy at home but would have an extremely friendly policy toward both the United States and Israel.  Some even predicted that the new Iraqi government would construct an oil pipeline with a terminus in Israel.

According to that rosy scenario, the transition to a democratic Iraqi government would be swift and easy.  Department of Defense planners assumed that U.S. troop levels would be down to 50,000, or even lower, by the end of 2003.  Some military experts, though, warned that such optimism was unwarranted.  Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, predicted that the occupation would require “several hundred thousand troops” for a period of “many years.”  Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz flatly rejected Shinseki’s assessment in congressional testimony.  For his candor, Shinseki was pressured into an early retirement.

Wolfowitz also scoffed at notions that the occupation would be a financial drain.  He predicted that Iraq’s oil revenues would pay for the entire costs of reconstruction.  Again, those officials who dared sound discordant notes were shown the door.  Larry Lindsey, chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors, warned that the cost of the Iraq occupation could exceed $200 billion.  He was pressured out of his post soon thereafter.

Of course, in one sense, Lindsey was wrong.  The Iraq war did not cost $200 billion; it has cost $350 billion and counting.  And that figure does not include long-term, indirect costs—for example, the continuing medical care and rehabilitation expenses for the more than 22,000 service personnel who have been wounded (many severely).  Former Rep. Lee Hamilton, cochairman of the Iraq Study Group, has stated that the costs could exceed one trillion dollars in the near term.  Another estimate by Columbia University economist Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard University economist Linda Bilmes in January 2006 concluded the direct and indirect costs of the Iraq war would be some $1.2 trillion, assuming that the United States began to withdraw her troops in 2006 (which, of course, Washington did not do); otherwise, they could reach $2 trillion.

Uneasy officials were not the only ones to warn that the Bush administration’s optimistic scenario was unwarranted.  In January 2002, more than a year before U.S. troops entered Iraq, I cautioned that

no matter how emotionally satisfying removing a thug like Saddam may seem, Americans would be wise to consider whether that step is worth the price.  The inevitable U.S. military victory would not be the end of America’s troubles in Iraq.  Indeed, it would mark the start of a new round of headaches.  Ousting Saddam would make Washington responsible for Iraq’s political future and entangle the United States in an endless nation-building mission beset by intractable problems.

As war grew nearer, other experts echoed such warnings.  On September 26, 2002, 33 prominent foreign-affairs scholars published an advertisement in the New York Times under the headline “War In Iraq Is Not in America’s National Interest.”  Among the points they made was that the administration of George H.W. Bush “did not try to conquer Iraq in 1991 because it was understood that doing so could spread instability in the Middle East. . . . This remains a valid concern today.”  They added: “Even if we win easily, we have no plausible exit strategy.  Iraq is a deeply divided society that the United States would have to occupy and police for many years to create a viable state.”  Experts who signed that ad included University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer, MIT professor Barry Posen, Columbia University professor Richard K. Betts, and the dean of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, Stephen M. Walt.  In February and March 2003, Boston University’s Andrew Bacevich and Texas A&M University’s Christopher Layne added their voices to the chorus warning of disaster, with Layne correctly foreseeing a “post-Saddam quagmire.”

Not only did the administration and other proponents of war ignore such warnings, they refused later on to recognize growing evidence that the mission was going badly.  Even as the security environment deteriorated, the chorus of optimism scarcely diminished.  In early 2005, Vice President Dick Cheney confidently asserted that the insurgency was “in its last throes.”  When the Iraqi parliament approved the Islamist-leaning government of Nouri al-Maliki in April 2006, the editors of National Review stated that it symbolized the triumph of democracy and that the “purveyors of doom now have some explaining to do.”

By late 2006, though, the evidence of massive disorder in Iraq was irrefutable.  Instead of admitting error, most of the hawks have redoubled their efforts to give advice about proper future strategy.  Arguing that it would be disastrous for the United States to acknowledge defeat, they offer a variety of schemes to salvage victory for the ill-starred intervention.  The most prominent proposal by far is to increase U.S. troop levels in Iraq.  The increasingly shrill neoconservatives argue that the Bush administration had launched the mission with too few troops—even though most of the lobbyists for war had argued exactly the opposite at the time.  (Indeed, some of them, including Wolfowitz, had proposed going in with an even lighter force—no more than 40,000 or 50,000 troops.)  Now, they insist that even the existing force of 145,000 is insufficient.

However, the hawks cannot agree on how many additional troops would be enough.  Some propose only another 20,000 or so.  Still others contend that at least 50,000 will be needed, and American Enterprise Institute scholar Frederick Kagan makes the case for sending 50,000 to 80,000 troops—a position endorsed by the editors of the hawkish Washington Times.  Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) talks openly about dispatching another 100,000.  The hawks also have a range of views about how long the buildup would be needed.  Some argue that it would be only a short-term mission (a few months) to stabilize the security environment in Baghdad, where the disorder is most severe.  Others hint that the buildup might have to last several years.  At any rate, President Bush indicated, in a speech to the nation delivered on January 10, that he is still listening to the hawks by announcing that he plans to send 21,500 additional troops to Iraq.

Given their track record, the arm-chair generals are the last people on the planet the President should turn to for advice on future policy regarding Iraq.  Instead, advice should be sought from the experts who correctly predicted disaster if the United States invaded that country.  Not surprisingly, most of those experts now advocate a prompt withdrawal from Iraq, despite the inevitable blow to America’s pride and credibility.  Layne, Bacevich, Mearsheimer, and Walt have been especially outspoken about the folly of “staying the course.”

Except when the survival of the nation is at stake, all military missions must be judged according to a rigorous cost-benefit calculation.  Iraq has never come close to being a war for America’s survival.  Even the connection of the Iraq mission to the larger war against Islamic terrorism was always tenuous, at best.  For all of his odious qualities, Saddam Hussein was a secular tyrant, not an Islamic radical.  Indeed, radical Muslims expressed nearly as much hatred for Saddam as they did for the United States.  Iraq was an elective war—a war of choice, and a bad choice at that.

Those who pushed America into the Iraq quagmire denounce any proposal for withdrawal as “cut and run.”  It is well past time to counterattack and demand that the hawks be specific about their strategy.  Vacuous statements such as “we will stand down when the Iraqis can stand up” or “we must stay until the job is done” are simply unacceptable.

It is especially pertinent to ask the Bush administration and its hawkish backers at what point they will admit that the costs of this venture have become unbearable.  How much longer are they willing to have our troops stay in Iraq?  Five years?  Ten years?  Twenty years?  How many more tax dollars are they willing to pour into Iraq?  Another $500 billion?  One trillion?  Three trillion?  And most crucial of all, how many more American lives are they willing to sacrifice?  Two thousand?  Five thousand?  Ten thousand?

Proponents of the mission studiously avoid addressing such unpleasant questions.  Instead, they act as though victory in Iraq can be achieved merely through the exercise of willpower.  President Bush epitomized that attitude during his November 2006 trip to East Asia, when he asserted that the United States would definitely win in Iraq—unless we decided to quit before the job was done.  A worrisome indicator of Bush’s thinking is that he did not regard America’s long and bloody war in Vietnam as a mistake.  The mistake, in his view, was that the United States did not stay the course until victory was attained.  If that is the governing attitude regarding the Iraq conflict, we are in for a prolonged and horrifically costly mission.

We need an exit strategy measured in months, not years.  Alarm bells should be ringing when the people who pushed America into the folly of a nation-building mission in Iraq are now advocating a redoubled effort.  Given their dismal track record, we ought to understand that such a strategy is the one thing we must not do under any circumstances.  They are false prophets who have led the republic into disaster.  We must spurn them regarding Iraq and every other foreign-policy issue.