The United States cannot start over in Iraq. But it has one last chance to adjust course and partly correct its previous mistakes. With the Iraqi elections in January, the United States entered what will be the last stage of its engagement there: the transition to withdrawal. No one knows how long this stage will last—perhaps one year, perhaps a few. But its end point is obvious. Either because things are going well enough that U.S. troops can leave or because they are going badly enough that the Americans have to go, sooner or later the heavy U.S. presence will be removed. Political forces in Iraq will demand it; so will politics in the United States. America's chance now is to "shape the exit," as some military planners put it—to determine how it will use its remaining influence in Iraq.
The people who have been most prescient in warning about mistakes over the past three years have suggestions about the final stage. The list of mistakes they tried to avert is familiar, but it bears repeating because of the fresh opportunity to learn from it. The two common themes are a lack of foresight and a lack of insight—that is, a failure to ask "What happens next?" and a failure to wonder "How will this look through Iraqi eyes?" Aside from ensuring that enough soldiers were on hand to seal borders and impose order once Baghdad fell, the United States could have managed the occupation differently. It could have prepared itself better for the inevitable Iraqi resentment of a foreign force. It could have stockpiled spare parts for Iraq's battered electrical system, in order to restore lost power quickly and pre-empt complaints that daily life in Baghdad was less convenient than it had been under Saddam Hussein. It could have viewed the prospect of looting as a dire threat to Iraq's recovery, and told its commanders that they must fill the power vacuum Saddam's overthrow would create. (The American indifference to postwar looting is still, two years later, the biggest unexplained failure of Iraq policy.) It could have found ways to get income to the families of the Iraqi soldiers it made jobless.