(photo credit: AP)
The fifth anniversary of the start of the invasion of Iraq passed last week, along with the deaths of another four American soldiers in a roadside bombing, bringing the toll of US losses there to 4,000.
Practically none of the initial supporters of the Iraq war, nor even many of its opponents, predicted that US casualties would ever run that high, or continue on fully five years after Operation Iraqi Freedom was launched.
This milestone has also prompted many American pundits to look back at what they wrote prior to the invasion, and indulge in either mea culpas or I-told-you-so's.
For the record, here's what I wrote in this column back on October 2, 2002: "Why take on Iraq before Iran? Why launch a strike against Baghdad before doing so in Lebanon's Beka'a Valley, home to a number of Syrian-protected Islamic terror organizations that hate the US as much as they do Israel? Why not first commit the necessary American troops needed to mop up the al-Qaida operatives still lurking along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border - possibly including Osama bin Laden himself - before sending them to finish off Saddam?
"I don't know, and as an American I don't know why Bush sees Saddam as so immediate a threat against the US that he has made removing him Washington's highest priority at this time.
"As an Israeli, though, I see things a little differently. I don't buy into the argument that effecting a regime change in Baghdad will necessarily advance the cause of democracy in the region, nor do I believe it will improve our strategic position vis-a-vis the Palestinians or Syrians. But Saddam is a serious threat, period, to the state of Israel, and that threat increases exponentially every day he is allowed to develop weapons of mass destruction."
FIVE YEARS on, I've no cause to regret those words. True, like many others, I put too much trust in both the US and Israeli intelligence reports that Saddam had a current stockpile of WMDs. And there's no question that his elimination strengthened Iranian influence in Iraq and elsewhere.
But even if Saddam didn't have WMDs, his record of striking out directly at this country during the first Gulf War, his financial support to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers, his history of using non-conventional weapons, and his overall military recklessness, made him at the time this country's most imminent threat, even more so than Teheran.
Still, even while most Israelis welcomed Saddam's removal, it's important to remember that very few prominent officials or media figures here ever seriously bought into the wider Bush agenda, supported by prominent neo-conservatives both in and outside the administration, that Iraq could become a "beacon of democracy" in the Arab world.
There was hope, though, that at the very least a new Iraq could be built that would move away from the radical axis of hard-line Arab regimes and into the relatively "moderate" camp of more Western-oriented states such as Egypt and Jordan.
That five years later it is still an open question whether such an outcome is likely, or whether Iraq itself will even survive the coming years as one viable nation, is depressing testimony to the yawning gap between the Bush administration's high-flown rhetoric and its incompetent and appalling post-war efforts to secure and reconstruct the country.
SPEAKING OF which, in July of 2004 I wrote: "Bush has thus far refused to provide the one or two extra divisions many military commentators believe are needed there [Iraq], and this week's spate of attacks in Baghdad illustrate the consequences of that policy."
Not that I deserve any particular credit for that insight, having heard it, along with other Jerusalem Post editors, from the lips of Senator John McCain during his visit here a year earlier.
Having belatedly inserted that extra "surge" of troops last summer, the US has finally brought the violence in Iraq down to levels at which it may be possible to achieve some economic and political progress there.
Unfortunately, all this comes way too late for the Bush administration to retain the confidence of the American people that it is up to the job of guiding this process - or for that matter, of also dealing effectively with the increasing Iranian threat next door.
DESPITE ALL this, it would be tragic if the next president, no matter who that is, acts precipitously in scaling down the US commitment to Iraq. Former US secretary of state Colin Powell put it best when he enunciated his "Pottery Barn" rule in relation to Iraq: "If you break it, you own it."
Iraq was clearly damaged goods before the American invasion, and the majority of its people are likely better off - or at least have the prospect of a better future - than they had before the invasion. This point is certainly inarguable when it comes to certain sectors of the population, such as the Kurds in the North and marsh Arabs in the South.
Still, with more than half a million Iraqis killed since 2003, and more than two million having fled abroad, this is a broken nation, and the US cannot run from it now until it is set on firmer footing.
That certainly won't be the case if McCain attains the presidency, although his admirable propensity for being far more honest than Bush about the kind of sacrifice the American people have to be willing to make in Iraq - and what kind of returns they can realistically expect - will make that task politically daunting.
Nor do I believe, whatever they may say on the campaign trail, that either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton will beat too hasty a retreat once in the White House. At least the Democrats have shown more of a propensity than their Republican counterparts for investing in the type of "nation-building" that will be necessary over the long term in Iraq.
Although five years, longer than the US fought in World War II, may seem a long time, it is far too early to realistically assess the impact of the invasion of Iraq. The outcome there is far from determined, and while there is certainly no guarantee that Iraq won't eventually sink into chaos and despotism, Bush's successor can do much more to set that nation on a more promising course.
Whatever the origins of the Iraq war, its consequences over the course of history may well prove beneficial and worth the sacrifices that have been made. This week's focus on a backward look was understandable; now though, its time for the US, especially George W. Bush's potential replacements, to start thinking and talking seriously about the next five years in Iraq.
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