The official reason the Bush administration gave for invading Iraq was to capture Saddam Hussein's arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. Because such weapons were never found, the war is considered a blunder rare in American history. That is narrow thinking, however.
The Iraq War is actually a failure less because no weapons were found than because of the financial cost, the lives lost and the military quagmire that ensued and that worked to strengthen Iranian power in the region for nearly a decade. But what if the financial cost and the lives lost were significantly less, so that no military quagmire ensued?
In fact, the real question is whether the Iraq War could have been fought more intelligently, thus changing our perception of it. If you say "no," then you are a determinist: someone who does not believe in the power of human choice to alter the direction of events. And if you do not believe in the power of human choice, then your own life -- and history, too -- has no purpose.
I am not saying that the decision to invade Iraq was smart. I am saying that once we did so, there were better and worse outcomes based on the many individual choices made by President George W. Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney and others. For example, what if the Iraqi army had been immediately reconstituted after the collapse of the regime; or what if the Baath Party had only been purged at its uppermost levels rather than completely eviscerated?
Probably the most famous acknowledgement of this distinction is found in the work of journalist and military historian Thomas E. Ricks, a former colleague of mine at a Washington think tank. In Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2003-2005 (2006), Ricks essentially lambasts the decision to invade. But in The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today (2012), Ricks demonstrates further that while opposed to the war, he is not a determinist, for he dissects the blunders made by Rumsfeld-appointed generals that led to Iraq being, well, a fiasco.
Here are some examples of what-ifs, concerning Iraq, that illustrate that the Iraq War was not necessarily fated to turn out exactly as it did.
As Ricks and others have documented, the war's commander, Army Gen. Tommy Franks, was a conventional and narrow-minded thinker who lacked the intellectual firepower to challenge civilian leaders in the Pentagon when they failed to plan adequately for governing a post-invasion Iraq. But what if the combatant commander of Central Command at the time was not Franks but someone of the caliber of Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni? Zinni, a military intellectual, had run Central Command prior to Franks. Zinni had thought hard and deeply about a post-Saddam Iraq falling into chaos. Someone like Zinni would certainly have challenged Rumsfeld, while threatening to resign if meticulous plans were not laid out by the Pentagon and the White House for governing Iraq. Individuals matter in history -- it is not all about impersonal forces of geography, technology and so on. The difference between a Zinni and a Franks could have been the difference between one outcome in Iraq and another, and between one historical perception of the Iraq War and another.
Not only was Franks not up to the job, neither was Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, who replaced Franks in post-invasion Iraq. Sanchez was arguably among the least experienced three-star generals in the U.S. Army, a veritable two-star, in fact. While Franks' lack of imagination did not allow him to foresee chaos in Iraq, it was Sanchez's lack of competence that helped allow for such chaos to become reality. It was under Bush and Rumsfeld that Sanchez was chosen: This was not mere fate, about which the administration could have done nothing; this was human agency working in the service of perhaps the worst possible result.