The Iraq war? Fuggedaboudit. “Now, it is time to turn the page.” So advises the commander-in-chief at least. “[T]he bottom line is this,” President Obama remarked last Saturday, “the war is ending.” Alas, it’s not. Instead, the conflict is simply entering a new phase. And before we hasten to turn the page—something that the great majority of Americans are keen to do—common decency demands that we reflect on all that has occurred in bringing us to this moment. Absent reflection, learning becomes an impossibility.
For those Americans still persuaded that everything changed the moment Obama entered the Oval Office, let’s provide a little context. The event that historians will enshrine as the Iraq war actually began back in 1990 when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, Iraq’s unloved and unlovable neighbor. Through much of the previous decade, the United States had viewed Saddam as an ally of sorts, a secular bulwark against the looming threat of Islamic radicalism then seemingly centered in Tehran. Saddam’s war of aggression against Iran, launched in 1980, did not much discomfit Washington, which offered the Iraqi dictator a helping hand when his legions faced apparent defeat.
Yet when Saddam subsequently turned on Kuwait, he overstepped. President George H.W. Bush drew a line in the sand, likened the Iraqi dictator to Hitler, and dispatched 500,000 American troops to the Persian Gulf. The plan was to give Saddam a good spanking, make sure all concerned knew who was boss, and go home.
Operation Desert Storm didn’t turn out that way. An ostensibly great victory gave way to even greater complications. Although, in evicting the Iraqi army from Kuwait, U.S. and coalition forces did what they had been sent to do, Washington became seized with the notion merely turning back aggression wasn’t enough: In Baghdad, Bush’s nemesis survived and remained defiant. So what began as a war to liberate Kuwait morphed into an obsession with deposing Saddam himself. In the form of air strikes and missile attacks, feints and demonstrations, CIA plots and crushing sanctions, America’s war against Iraq persisted throughout the 1990s, finally reaching a climax with George W. Bush’s decision after September 11, 2001, to put Saddam ahead of Osama bin Laden in the line of evildoers requiring elimination.
The U.S.-led assault on Baghdad in 2003 finally finished the work left undone in 1991—so it appeared at least. Here was decisive victory, sealed by the capture of Saddam Hussein himself in December 2003. “Ladies and gentlemen,” announced L. Paul Bremer, the beaming American viceroy to Baghdad, “we got him.”
Yet by the time Bremer spoke, it—Iraq—had gotten us. Saddam’s capture (and subsequent execution) signaled next to nothing. Round two of the Iraq war had commenced, the war against Saddam (1990–2003) giving way to the American Occupation (2003–2010). Round two began the War to Reinvent Iraq in America’s Image.
With officials such as Bremer in the vanguard, the United States set out to transform Iraq into a Persian Gulf “city upon a hill,” a beacon of Western-oriented liberal democracy enlightening and inspiring the rest of the Arab and Islamic world. When this effort met with resistance, American troops, accustomed to employing overwhelming force, responded with indiscriminate harshness. President Bush called the approach “kicking ass.” Heavy-handedness backfired, however, and succeeded only in plunging Iraq into chaos. One result, on the home front, was to produce a sharp backlash against what had become Bush’s War.
Unable to win, unwilling to accept defeat, the Bush administration sought to create conditions allowing for a graceful exit. Marketed for domestic political purposes as “a new way forward,” more commonly known as “the surge,” this modified approach was the strategic equivalent of a dog’s breakfast. President Bush steeled himself to expend more American blood and treasure while simultaneously lowering expectations about what U.S. forces might actually accomplish. New tactics designed to suppress the Iraqi insurgency won Bush’s approval; so too did the novel practice of bribing insurgents to put down their arms.
Yet as a consequence the daily violence that had made Iraq a hellhole subsided—although it did not disappear.
Meanwhile, once hallowed verities fell by the wayside. U.S. officials stopped promising that Saddam’s downfall would trigger a wave of liberalizing reforms throughout the Islamic world. Op-eds testifying to America’s enduring commitment to the rights of Iraqi women ceased to appear in the nation’s leading newspapers.
Respected American generals—by 2007, about the only figures retaining a shred of credibility on Iraq—disavowed the very possibility of victory. In military circles, to declare that “there is no military solution” became the very height of fashion.
By the time Barack Obama had ascended to the presidency, this second phase of the Iraq war—its purpose now inverted from occupation to extrication—was already well-advanced. Since taking office, Obama has kept faith with the process that his predecessor set in motion, building upon President Bush’s success. (When applied to Iraq, “success” has become a notably elastic term, easily accommodating bombs that detonate in Iraqi cities and insurgent assaults directed at Iraqi forces and government installations.)
Which brings us to the present. After seven-plus years, Operation Iraqi Freedom has concluded. Operation New Dawn, its name suggesting a skin cream or dishwashing liquid, now begins. (What ever happened to the practice of using terms like Torch or Overlord or Dragoon to describe military campaigns?) Although something like 50,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq, their mission is not to fight, but simply to advise and assist their Iraqi counterparts. In another year, if all goes well, even this last remnant of an American military presence will disappear.
So the Americans are bowing out, having achieved few of the ambitious goals articulated in the heady aftermath of Baghdad’s fall. The surge, now remembered as an epic feat of arms, functions chiefly as a smokescreen, obscuring a vast panorama of recklessness, miscalculation, and waste that politicians, generals, and sundry warmongers are keen to forget.
Back in Iraq, meanwhile, nothing has been resolved and nothing settled. Round one of the Iraq war produced a great upheaval that round two served only to exacerbate. As the convoys of U.S. armored vehicles trundle south toward Kuwait and then home, they leave the stage set for round three.
Call this the War of Iraqi Self-Determination (2010–?). As the United States removes itself from the scene, Iraqis will avail themselves of the opportunity to decide their own fate, a process almost certain to be rife with ethnic, sectarian, and tribal bloodletting. What the outcome will be, no one can say with certainty, but it won’t be pretty.
One thing alone we can say with assurance:As far as Americans are concerned, Iraqis now own their war. “Like any sovereign, independent nation,” President Obama recently remarked, “Iraq is free to chart its own course.” The place may be a mess, but it’s their mess not ours. In this sense alone is the Iraq war “over.”
As U.S. forces have withdrawn, they have done so in an orderly fashion. In their own eyes, they remain unbeaten and unbeatable. As the troops pull out, the American people are already moving on: Even now, Afghans have displaced Iraqis as the beneficiaries of Washington’s care and ministrations. Oddly, even disturbingly, most of us—our memories short, our innocence intact—seem content with the outcome. The United States leaves Iraq having learned nothing.
Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His new book is Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War.