Most Americans have pretty much forgotten about the war in Iraq by now. But the comforts of obliviousness are illusory. Iraq is just too important a country for that.
The experience in Iraq is also certain to have implications for many other areas of U.S. foreign policy that aren't necessarily confined to the Middle East. One involves the frequently discussed realm of "democracy promotion."
American war aims in Iraq explicitly included toppling Saddam Hussein's one-party dictatorship and installing a new, more accountable form of government that would live in peace with its own people as well as its neighbors. There's a reason the official American name for the war was Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Washington took this mission seriously: "Securing and stabilizing a new democracy in Iraq and helping its economy grow were the foundational rationales behind the massive U.S. assistance effort." That quote comes from the final report, issued last week around the 10th anniversary of the invasion, by the special inspector general for Iraqi reconstruction, a government watchdog set up to monitor how the $60 billion allocated for rebuilding Iraq was actually spent.
Perhaps the most interesting section is the one entitled "Democracy and Civil Society." Altogether, the report notes, the United States spent $1.82 billion on measures to strengthen democratic institutions, such as supporting elections, drafting a constitution and promoting the growth of civil society groups. (That sum doesn't include funding for other programs that encouraged democracy, such as efforts to improve governance, build the rule of law and fight corruption.) The Congressional Research Service, by the way, has estimated the overall direct costs of the war at $806 billion, which doesn't include a whole series of war-related expenditures that make the actual bill much higher.
Of course, we also must not forget the cost in blood: Tens of thousands of Iraqi civilian deaths (estimates range from 60,000 to 10 times that) as well as combatant losses, including the deaths of 4,486 U.S. military personnel.
So should Americans feel happy about the results? Well, the inspector general does note that the Iraqis carried off an impressive series of peaceable elections. But that's where the good news ends. The report notes, for example, that the State Department wasn't able to measure the impact of the grants it awarded for "democracy-building activities," which included things like offering advice to women's groups and teaching political parties how to garner votes.
What is clear is that over half of the money spent on such activities went to "security and overhead costs" -- a reflection of the constraints imposed by a nightmarish security situation that the occupiers and Iraqi authorities never quite tamed.
Elsewhere, the report bemoans the lack of "meaningful metrics" that might have helped us understand how effective the programs were: "Perhaps the problem lies in the nature of the program itself: How do you empirically capture the effects of civics training on the ability of a person to be a better citizen?"
A good question. On the macro level, however, matters are clearer. In the most recent Freedom House survey of democracy around the world, Iraq falls unambiguously into the "Not Free" category. And Iraq's rating on "civil liberties" is the same as that of Iran.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki now runs a staunchly authoritarian state that, while not quite as vicious as Saddam's old dictatorship, doesn't hesitate to crack down on its opponents. The media are largely under government control, and the government is happy to make opponents disappear on the pretext of a vaguely defined "war on terror."
And yes, the local al-Qaida franchise is still active, blowing up people at random -- mostly, it would seem, for sectarian reasons: Mr. Maliki's ham-fisted rule is based on his roots in the country's Shiite majority, while al-Qaida still draws upon the disenfranchised Sunni minority.
But enmity to al-Qaida is a poor predictor of loyalty to the United States. All that American blood and treasure expended on his country has not exactly made Mr. Maliki a proxy of Washington. He has made headlines warning against a victory by the rebels in Syria and he's the only Arab leader who hasn't called on Syrian President Bashar Assad to resign. Iraq even has offered sanctuary to Mr. Assad's soldiers, 48 of whom were killed inside Iraq last week.
This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Mr. Maliki's pro-Iranian sympathies. His party enjoyed Iranian support long before Americans helped bring him to power and, in the years since, he has made a name for himself as a friend of Tehran.
So what went wrong?
Thomas Carothers, a democracy promotion expert at the Carnegie Endowment, ticks off three "original sins" of the U.S. effort in Iraq.
The first was a focus on the minutiae of building democratic institutions (like a constitution and a parliament) at the expense of the bigger job of reaching a fundamental political settlement in the country -- in other words, how power would be divided among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.
The second problem was that Washington preferred secular, English-speaking Iraqi politicians who seemed congenial to U.S. interests and did its best to put them in power. That makes people think you're not for democracy but just for your friends, says Mr. Carouthers.
Finally, U.S. officials wrongly assumed that removing Saddam would assure continued U.S. political influence. This error was compounded by the devastating American inability to comprehend Iraqi society in all of its complexity -- or to comprehend why the occupation was so despised.
A common view holds that you can't "install democracy at gunpoint." The Iraq War's defenders contend that the West succeeded in doing just that in occupied Germany and Japan after World War II. What this argument usually overlooks is that post-1945 efforts were meticulously planned, took place under good security conditions and marshaled the expertise of an entire generation of administrators and social scientists -- factors that didn't apply to the U.S. state-building exercise in Iraq.
Let's hope Washington takes that lesson to heart. Not trying to remake other societies might be a good place to begin.
Christian Caryl is a senior fellow at the Legatum Institute and at the MIT Center for International Studies. He wrote this for Foreign Policy.