As promised to commenter Will, an answer to this question: “What policies do you think would have salvaged the situation in Iraq circa 2003?”
That answer is almost certainly more troops. There was far too much concern in the leadup to the war about being seen as aggressive imperialists as embodied by sending a huge number of troops into Iraq. That was kind of silly: We we were going to be seen as aggressive imperialists by those who wish to do us harm no matter what. Yes, some (even most) of the Iraqis might have greeted us as liberators at first, but liberation without basic security is kind of pointless.
So after the smashing success of the initial invasion, our troops were in kind of a hopeless situation: they could secure most of the cities but they couldn’t police them or hold them all simultaneously and, perhaps even more importantly, they couldn’t secure the country’s borders. As to the first point, not having enough troops led to the fall of Fallujah and trouble in Baghdad: we would clear one area and instead of holding it be forced to go to another hotspot. This doesn’t make for a secure situation–enemy forces would just go from city to city, blending in with a population and using fear as a tool to keep civilians from revealing their locations. As to the second point, not being able to secure the borders led to all manner of foreign insurgents (and the civilian death toll they brought with them) entering the country. Talking to a friend in Baghdad at one point in 2006, he said that his boys were killing as many foreigners as they were Iraqi Sunnis. It was an untenable situation. The tipping point finally came sometime after the surge in 2007 when we had enough troops to clear AND hold cities and Iraqis got tired of the death squads roaming the streets.
Now, could this all have been avoided by inserting more troops, recognizing that we were dealing with an insurgency, and implementing Petraeus’s plan earlier? To a certain extent, yes, almost certainly. There was bound to be violence, but Rumsefeld’s intransigence–and Bush’s refusal to recognize his failures and the problems on the ground–were clear roadblocks to success in Iraq, success we’re starting to see now.
I also can’t say I agree entirely with Will’s central premise, specifically this sentence: “Throw in a native culture most American service-members are unfamiliar with and the inevitable resentment provoked by foreign occupiers, and I’m just not sure if tactical or operational changes would have saved the administration’s grand strategy.” All I can say is that history–both American and otherwise–would argue differently. The Romans, Greeks, and Persians all spent centuries pacifying third world countries and imposing their will on the populace; America did the same thing in Japan and South Korea. Is Iraq different than Japan and South Korea (or, for that matter, the Gauls and the Celts)? Yeah, sure. But I would argue that it’s ahistorical to say that unfamiliarity with a nation’s culture and resentment by the locals precludes military success. We just haven’t done a very good job of things in Iraq.