Broadly speaking, I think we had a couple of options in Iraq after the invasion. The ambitious democratization route was option one:
de-Baathify, put the returnees in high places, take over the bureaucracy and train a new generation of Western educated, liberal-minded Iraqis to run the country. (Even here we should probably have held onto a chunk of the Iraqi army and/or helped find work for those soldiers we
dismissed.) Option two: a less ambitious policy of striking deals with a pro-American strongman (and/or strongmen) a few notches less repressive than Saddam, and keeping much of the army and the old bureaucracy in place.
In other words, either go for deep
democratization, or for quick deal-making with allies. The true democratization strategy would have required a lot of troops and a lot of time, although we may have been able to cut back on troops eventually if large sections of the
(non-disbanded) Iraqi army had truly switched allegiance to the new government.. Even the non-democratization strategy would have called for more American troops to establish security at the outset, but would have required large numbers of troops for a much shorter time than option one.
There were lots of interrelated mistakes here:
thinking we could get democratization on the cheap, and not fielding enough troops to support either of our key policy options. More deeply, we failed to recognize that a functioning national democracy depends upon deep-lying cultural and social pre-requisites that take time and effort to create. We treated the factions in Iraq as if they were Americanized ethnic groups sitting around a bargaining table–expecting that they’d recognize their own interest in peaceful democratic cooperation. We didn’t understand that democratic restraint and compromise depend upon a social structure and world-view (eg, loyalty to the nation, acceptance of the rule of law, belief in the principles of individual
liberty) that we take for granted, but that are in fact exceedingly difficult to export. And we mistakenly took the mere act of voting in elections as proof that this broader social transformation had already substantially advanced. We believed that all people everywhere have the desire for freedom in their hearts. In reality, it’s a whole lot more complicated than that.