Iraq: Requiem for a Profound Misadventure

Obama's somber speech on Iraq is a reminder of when and why we should — and should not — go to war

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Ahmad Al-Rubaye / AFP / Getty Images

US soldiers walk past containers being transported at Camp Victory, a giant sprawling military base on the edge of Baghdad airport, on June 24, 2010 as American troops sort through the mass of hardware and supplies that must either be taken home, sent to Afghanistan, or destroyed.

It is a matter of some relief that Barack Obama did not announce the end of major combat operations in Iraq under a banner that said "Mission Accomplished." He did it in a speech to the Disabled American Veterans (DAV), 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 hundreds of thousands. Iraq hasn't been much in the news over the past year, but this is an important milestone — even if our mission there will continue on a much smaller scale for 16 more months — a moment for reflection and humility in the face of a national embarrassment.

There is no "victory" in Iraq, nor will there be. There is something resembling stability, for now. There is a semblance of democracy, but that may dissolve over time into a Shi'ite dictatorship — which, if not well run, could 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 are good things too. But Iran's position in the region has been strengthened. Its Iraqi allies, especially Muqtada al-Sadr's populist movement, will play a major role — perhaps one more central than ours — in shaping the future of the country. Our attempt to construct an Iraq more amenable to our interests will end no better than the previous attempts by Western colonial powers. Even if something resembling democracy prevails, the U.S. invasion and occupation will not be remembered fondly by Iraqis. 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 hadn't been diverted from that primary conflict, the story in the Pashtun borderlands might be very different now. The sense of the U.S. as a repository of tempered, honorable actions may never recover from the images of the past decade, especially the photographs from Abu Ghraib prison.

The idea 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 — turned out to be a neocolonialist delusion. The fact that Bush apologists still trot out his "forward strategy of freedom" as an example of American idealism is a farce. That feckless exercise in naiveté brought us a Hamas government in Gaza, after a Palestinian election that no one but the Bush Administration wanted. It raised the hopes of reformers across the region, soon dashed when the Bush Administration retreated, realizing that the 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 would replace. Freedom may well be "God's gift to humanity," as Bush insisted, radiating a simpleminded 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 U.S. to impose that freedom violently upon others.

It is appropriate that Obama's speech to the DAV will not be remembered as vividly as George W. Bush's puerile march across the deck of an aircraft carrier, costumed as a combat aviator against a golden sunset, to announce — seven years and tens of thousands of lives prematurely — the "end of combat operations." Obama's announcement was no celebration. It was a somber acknowledgment that amends will be made to those whose lives were shattered and that their courageous service in an unnecessary cause will be honored. A national discussion about America's place in the world, and the military's excessive place in our foreign policy, would also be appropriate in the wake of this disaster, but I'm not holding my breath.

As for myself, I deeply regret that once, on television in the days before the war, I foolishly — spontaneously — said that going ahead with the invasion might be the right thing to do. I was far more skeptical in print. I never wrote in favor of the war and repeatedly raised the problems that would accompany it, but mere skepticism was an insufficient reaction too. The issue then was as clear 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.