What Will Endure Once Iraq War Is History?

As America geared up for the war against Iraq that began two years ago Saturday, there was talk of a "cakewalk" and a swift departure once the regime of Saddam Hussein fell. Within months, President Bush famously addressed troops on an aircraft carrier flying a "mission accomplished" banner.

But the mission was not accomplished -- and two years on, it still isn't.

Iraq has not been a lightning strike like the 1980s invasions of Grenada and Panama, or even the 1991 Gulf war. And Bush now says the U.S. presence in Iraq will continue for the foreseeable future -- perhaps ultimately making the Iraq fight longer in duration than U.S. involvement in World War II.

"Our troops will come home when Iraq is capable of defending herself," Bush told reporters Wednesday. "There's positive signs that have taken place in the development of the Iraqi security force, but there's still work to be done."

'Strategic Impact'

The length of a war does not always match its historical profile. America fought in World War I for a year and a half. That's similar to or less than the duration of lesser-known fights including the 1899 insurrection in the Philippines (which cost thousands more U.S. lives than the Iraq war), the late 1700s "quasi war" with France, the early 1800s Barbary wars, and even recent wars or interventions in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Haiti and Somalia. In addition, American deaths in Iraq so far are considerably less than in most of its "major" wars.

Still, could posterity one day judge the war in Iraq as a momentous conflict in America's history, similar to the world wars, the Civil War or Vietnam?

"How serious this [Iraq war] is going to be is not a matter of duration," said Anthony Cordesman, ABC News' military analyst. "What's going to really count is its strategic impact."

Such impact gives most of America's major wars overarching -- some might say oversimplified -- themes in history books, says Jon Guttman, editor of Military History magazine. For instance, the Revolutionary War earned American independence, the Mexican War expanded America's borders to include California and the Southwest, the Civil War preserved the union and led to the end of U.S slavery, the Spanish-American War and World War I announced and confirmed America's presence as a global power, and World War II defeated fascism.

"Vietnam was a reminder that no matter what power you have, terrain or the populace -- if it's determined enough -- can prevail against the technology," Guttman said. "We kept changing our objectives until we forgot what they were. The other side stuck to theirs. We spent too much time presenting the war as something other than what it was, which could be applied to Iraq today."

Raised Stakes?

Some speculate the high stakes in Iraq -- raised by the overlapping war on terror and instability in the Middle East -- could bring about dramatic changes.

"There's a tremendous amount riding on it one way or the other," Guttman said. The Iraq war's legacy could include "the possibility of a ripple effect that might create other democratic governments in places where there hadn't been any or the possibility of a backlash that could make al Qaeda's agenda more popular."

Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, sees a similar equation, but more localized historical fallout.

"Most of the effects of this will be applicable to Iraq first and foremost," O'Hanlon said. "A lot of the pros or cons on the war on terror or democratic movement in the Middle East will be secondary in scope and importance."

Peter Khalil, who was director of national security policy for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq from August 2003 to May 2004, sees change in the Middle East as inevitable because "a lot of these autocratic regimes are unsustainable." He believes that, years from now, the region's changes will seem to stem from the Iraq war -- though in reality the war may be just a contributing factor.

U.S. failure in Iraq would be more likely to slow democratic reform in the region than give a permanent boost to al Qaeda, Khalil said.

"Any boost to al Qaeda in this is more of a short-term to medium-term thing," he added. "In the long term, I think their ideology is not shared by the majority of people in the Arab or Muslim world. … Most Arabs and Muslims I speak to in the region are horrified by al Qaeda. They consider it a distortion of their religion."

History Takes Time

Whether the war's pendulum ultimately swings toward democracy or terror -- or in a different direction entirely -- may not be known for a decade or more. And even then, precedent suggests the historical impact may not be fully evident for decades longer.

"The general reaction in American politics during the Korean War was generally pretty negative, and yet that [ultimately] was regarded as a victory," Cordesman said.

During the Vietnam War, he added, hawks argued that American prestige was at stake and defeating communists in Vietnam would halt communism's spread from country to country via a domino effect.

Nevertheless, though communists prevailed, further dominoes didn't fall and America maintained its position as a world power. History can defy assumptions.

"People write in [to Military History magazine] to write articles about what's going on in Iraq, and I tell them the same thing: 'This isn't history yet; it's still current events,' " Guttman said.

Conventional wisdom on Iraq could be turned on its head by history, the experts say. For instance, something like Iraq's election, which may seem momentous now, could later be viewed as less relevant if the elected officials fail to form a government or draft a constitution. Likewise, bad news of attacks and reconstruction problems could be eclipsed.

"If it helps to create a more stable power structure overall in the [Persian] Gulf [region], then the legacy of the war is going to be positive and all of today's reservations will be forgotten," Cordesman said.

U.S. officials may be trying to give history a nudge in that direction. After arguing that the Iraq war would be remembered for containing weapons of mass destruction -- since found not to exist in Iraq -- or for removing an unstable tyrant, Bush lately has pressed the case that the war's legacy will be democracy.

"People in the world have got to see what it means for a group of people that've been downtrodden to rise up and say, 'I want to be free,' " Bush said Wednesday.

"It's important for people in that region to see what is possible in a free society," he added, citing other recent pro-democratic developments in Afghanistan, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. "I believe those examples will serve as examples for others over time. And that will lead to more peace, and that's what we want."

When Will Troops Go Home?

But such forecasts may be premature, when even the duration of the Iraq insurgency and U.S.-led occupation remain in question.

In a best-case scenario, several experts contacted by ABCNEWS.com expect U.S. forces to bear the brunt of the security burden in Iraq for perhaps a year or two more, and to maintain a reduced support presence there for years longer.

Khalil expects U.S. forces to begin drawing down their numbers gradually in 18 to 24 months, provided specialized Iraqi military and police forces now being trained prove effective at fighting terrorists and insurgents.

"Commando units, SWAT teams, the counter-terrorism teams," Khalil said, "you're starting to see them come out of that training pipeline. … They're the tip of the spear, if you'd like, dealing with the insurgents."

The ordinary police and military forces previously trained don't have the same capabilities, he added.

"Even our best-trained Western police forces … if a station was attacked with RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades], 50 insurgents with a car bomb, suicide bombs, I think they'd have a hard time, and that's what these Iraqi police have been dealing with," Khalil said.

O'Hanlon believes a more rapid reduction in U.S. forces may be possible, and preferable.

"This is not like Bosnia, Kosovo, or Germany or Japan after World War II," he said. "It's a situation in which our presence is both part of the solution and part of the problem. And so I think that there's an argument to get on a draw-down schedule, and to send a message that we are looking to do that as soon as we can, and that we have dates in mind for achieving percentage reductions in our force."

The U.S.-led coalition could then make "a transition to a smaller, perhaps NATO-led force sometime in the course of 2006, which would then play a support role to the Iraqi security forces, which will hopefully be much better trained by then," O'Hanlon added. "This is a two-stage thing, where the first phase is somewhere between three and three-and-a-half years long, and the next stage is more open-ended, probably another half decade."

Two Years and Counting? Or 14?

With so much ahead, it may be too early to predict the war's enduring legacy. But O'Hanlon said the scope of the Iraq war, with its limited combat force and 1,511 U.S. troops reported killed, falls far short of World Wars I and II, when Defense Department figures show millions fought and 116,516 and 405,399 U.S. troops were killed, respectively.

Even so, depending on who's counting, America's fight in Iraq already may be longer than both world wars combined.

"It will certainly not be [viewed historically as] a World War-scale military operation, and it may or may not end up being thought of in the same category as Vietnam and Korea," O'Hanlon said. "It clearly already is in the same category as Desert Storm, and in fact it probably will be linked to Desert Storm. When you get enough historical distance from this, they'll be seen as bookends demarcating basically a 12-, 15-year-long military operation that went through different phases."