As I recall, the main purpose for the invasion of Iraq when it happened was to remove a threat to the US. This meant decapitating the regime and removing their WMDs. Now, let’s say the administration had planned to do that, and more or less just that. What would it have done differently?
The invasion would probably have proceeded more or less as it occurred. It is possible that more troops would have been available in the early days – if everyone knew ahead of time it was for a limited three month deployment, American troops could have been brought in from Germany, South Korea, etc. (And yes, everyone knew that beating the Iraqi regime would be done quickly. The Iraqis haven’t been a formidable military power for about thousand years. In 1991 trained Iraqis surrendered to CNN, and training hadn’t improved since then.)
Once the invasion took place, the US could have announced a date for elections a couple months later, and a pull-out date a month after that leaving a small force in country to look for WMDs and as a symbol of its will. What would have been the effect of that? Well, immediately after WW2, the US military and the Red Army and the Brits and the French started sending their troops from Germany. Did that cause the Germans to rise up? Similarly, the declining size of the US military in Asia in late 1945 and 1946 didn’t lead to a Japanese rebellion either. Bear in mind… there were still plenty of guns in the hands of very well trained (unlike Iraqis) Germans and Japanese soldiers at the time.
In Iraq, a US departure (if done right) could have accomplished the same thing. Sure, there are Sunnis and Shias and Kurds and Baathists and secularits and fundamentalists and even some Al Qaeda and who knows what else running around in Iraq. Would that have led to a fight? Well, no. Because the US would have a credible threat – we can walk right back in again time. And it would be credible, because it would have happened once with no deleterious effects to the US. (Again… there were a bunch of different factions in Germany in 1946, and armed Germans sure as heck outnumbered armed Americans in West Germany.)
Letting an Iraqi government hang Baathist criminals would probably have had a unifying effect on the country.
(A digression… one might argue… sure, but the Germans had a history of democracy, the Iraqis did not. But Germany had gone twelve years without democracy of any sort, and they were able to come right back to it.)
And incidentally, that credible threat… it would apply to other countries as well. The Dear Leader of North Korea is only afraid of one thing… the decapitation of his regime. He isn’t afraid that the US will do it, however, because he’s seen how it happened in Iraq, and how much it cost us. But… if it had happened as I describe above, at relatively low cost (in lives and treasure), it would be one heck of a credible threat. Ditto Iran, Syria, Libya, etc. Maybe even Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. (Sure, Libya did throw in a few baubbles as a result of the Iraq invasion, but Kaddafi is the stupid one among the tyrants in that part of the world. It didn’t occur to him to wait around and see what the results were going to be, and sure enough, he’s since come back to criticizing the West.)
Would the same results occur if the US pulled out now? Well, no. Its a matter of timing. The US has already demonstrated weakness… for the last three years.
But maybe, just maybe – announcing a no-nonsense pull-out date under our terms and conditions, might get a smidge of that credibility back.