In the Arena

Obama on Iraq

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Well, at least he didn’t announce the end of major combat operations in Iraq under a banner that said “Mission Accomplished.” He did it in front of the Disabled American Veterans, the most grave and sober audience imaginable. And appropriately so, after a war that should never have been fought, a war that by some estimates will cost $3 trillion before it’s done (including the health care services rendered to those represented by the DAV), a war whose casualties number in the 100s of thousands. The war in Iraq hasn’t been much in the news over the past year, but this is an important moment, a moment for ┬áreflection, for humility in the face of a national disaster.

There is no “victory” in Iraq, nor will there be. There is something resembling stability, but that might not last, either. There is a semblance of democracy, but that may dissolve over time, or in the next few months, into a Shi’ite dictatorship–which, if not well-run, will yield to the near-inevitable military coup. Yes, Saddam is gone–and that is a good thing. The Kurds have a greater measure of independence and don’t have to live in fear of mass murder, which is a good thing, too. But Iran has been aggrandized. Its Iraqi allies, especially Muqtada Sadr’s populist movement, remain a force that will play a major role–arguably one more central than ours–in shaping the future of the country. This attempt by western neo-colonialists–that is, the Bush Administration–to construct an amenable Iraq will most likely end no better than previous western attempts have. Certainly, even if something resembling democracy prevails, the U.S. invasion and occupation–the carnage and tragedy it wrought–will not be remembered fondly by Iraqis anytime soon. We will own the destruction in perpetuity; if the Iraqis manage to cobble themselves a decent society, they will see it, correctly, as an achievement of their own.

There are other consequences of this profound misadventure. The return of the Taliban in Afghanistan is certainly one; if U.S. attention, and special forces, hadn’t been diverted from that primary conflict, the story in the Pashtun borderlands might be very different now. The credibility of the United States–slowly recovering due to the efforts of Barack Obama–is another, after a war promulgated by a gale of ignorance at best and chicanery at worst. The sense of the United States as a nation of tempered, honorable actions may never recover from the images of the past decade, especially the photographs from Abu Ghraib prison.

The replacement notion that it was our right and responsibility to rid Iraq of a terrible dictator–after the original casus belli of weapons of mass destruction evaporated–is a neo-colonialist obscenity. The fact that Bush apologists still trot out his “Forward Freedom Agenda” as an example of American idealism is a delusional farce. The “Freedom Agenda” brought us a Hamas government in Gaza, after a Palestinian election that no one but the Bush Administration wanted. It brought the empowerment of Hizballah in Lebanon. It raised the hopes of reformers across the region, soon dashed when the Bush Administration retreated, realizing that the probable outcome of democracy in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia would be the installation of Islamist parties that might prove more repressive than the dictatorships they replaced. Freedom may well be “God’s gift to humanity,” as Bush intoned regularly, radiating a simple-minded piety that never reflected another of God’s greatest gifts–the ability to doubt, to think difficult thoughts and weigh conflicting options with clarity and subtlety. But I’m pretty sure God never designated the United States to impose that freedom violently upon others.

It is the way of the world that Barack Obama’s announcement today of the end of the combat phase in Iraq, and the beginning of a 16-month period of advice and support for the Iraqi security forces before U.S. troops leave in 2011, will not be remembered as vividly as George Bush’s juvenile march across the deck of an aircraft carrier, costumed as a combat aviator in a golden sunset, to announce–six years and tens of thousands of lives prematurely–the “end of combat operations.” But celebration is not appropriate now. What is appropriate is what the President did: promise that amends will be made to those whose lives were shattered and that their service in an unnecessary cause will be honored. What is also appropriate now is a mournful colloquy on America’s place in the world–and how our natural leadership among nations, a consequence of the freedom that Bush misconstrued, is best utilized in the future.

As for myself, I deeply regret that once, on television in the days before the war, I reluctantly but foolishly said that going ahead with the invasion might be the right thing to do. I was far more skeptical, and equivocal, in print–I never wrote in favor of the war and repeatedly raised the problems that would accompany it–but skepticism and equivocation were an insufficient reaction, too. In retrospect, the issue then was as clear cut as it is now. It demanded a clarity that I failed to summon. The essential principle is immutable: We should never go to war unless we have been attacked or are under direct, immediate threat of attack. Never. And never again.