How does one understand the U.S.-led expeditionary force that attacked Iraq exactly a decade ago, on March 18, 2003?
Saddam Hussein’s regime was one of the most monstrous in human history, enslaving some 20 million people to his cruel and demanding will and, without provocation, attacking several of his neighbors (Iran and Kuwait especially, also Israel and Saudi Arabia). In addition, he aspired to dominate the worldwide oil & gas trade and tried to build nuclear weapons. One can hardly imagine a greater menace to civilized life.
The decade that followed has seen a return to the more mundane awfulness of the Middle East. Communal problems, political turmoil, Islamist growth, poor relations with neighbors, but at least no gassing of one’s own population, invading neighbors, or threats to the world economy. This is all anyone could have expected – except that George W. Bush naïvely convinced himself and others that Iraq could be free and prosperous and even a model for the region. He then led a trillion-dollar effort that cost thousands of lives and came up woefully short.
So, yes, Iraq and the world are better off with Saddam gone. But the high hopes of a rehabilitation by the U.S. government have been disappointed. This should offer a pointed lesson for future temptations to “nation build”: Western powers enjoy overwhelming battlefield superiority but face great difficulty when trying to shape other countries. Don’t try the latter unless the stakes are high enough and the will exists to see it through.