In his Oval Office speech tomorrow night, President Obama will proclaim the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom, an end of American combat operations in Iraq. Obama will take credit for living up to a campaign promise by ending operations in Iraq, but he is doing no more than was required by the Status of Forces Agreement the Bush administration negotiated with the Iraqis.
More than 4,200 American lives have been lost in Iraq since the 2003 invasion. Already, about 100,000 American troops have been withdrawn from Iraq. But nearly 50,000 remain, and more Americans will die in Iraq before all our troops are withdrawn at the end of next year.
The neocons are now proclaiming that the troop surge in Iraq “won” the war and that we now have to “win the peace” in Iraq. Which amounts to a re-commitment to their nation-building strategy and would require that which we will not — and should not — do: remain in Iraq indefinitely.
What have we accomplished in Iraq? Was it worth the sacrifice in blood and treasure?
On the plus side, Saddam Hussein’s regime is gone. Saddam was apparently not involved in the 9-11 attacks, but we know that terrorists such as Abu Nidal were given safe haven by his regime. The late and unlamented Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — head of al Qaeda in Iraq — was operating there from at least September 2002 until his death in 2006. If Saddam remained undisturbed, Iraq would have continued to sponsor terrorism and allied itself more closely with al Qaeda.
Iraq’s former role in terrorism is over, for now. But al Qaeda in Iraq is resurgent and terrorist acts are taking a daily toll of lives there. President Bush stated that our goal in Iraq was to create a new nation able to govern, sustain, and defend itself and become an ally in the global war on terrorism. None of those goals have been achieved, and what has been accomplished is, at best, transitory.
After seven years of American occupation, those goals are as distant as they were in 2003. There have been several national elections, the most recent in March, but Iraqi leaders have been shielded from the responsibility to their nation by our occupation. For the past five months, Nouri al-Maliki and Ayad Allawi have not been compelled — as they would be if the politics of democracy were at work in their country — to compromise and form a working coalition government. Iraq is not able to govern itself. Without that capability, it cannot sustain or defend itself, and its ability to function as an ally against the nations that sponsor terrorism is nothing more than an American illusion.
That illusion infects Obama’s thinking. In his weekly Saturday address, Obama said, “The bottom line is this: The war is ending. Like any sovereign, independent nation, Iraq is free to chart its own course. And by the end of next year, all of our troops will be home.”
Obama’s deputy press secretary Bill Burton said Thursday, “The president is confident that the effort to transition from a combat role in Iraq to Iraqi forces being in charge of their own security has been a successful one and they are capable of taking on their own security.”
Obama’s comprehensive investment in the neocon nation-building strategy was demonstrated by Burton’s further statement — talking about the resurgence of terrorism in Iraq — that “The reason for these attacks is people who don’t want Iraq to flourish as a democracy. There are people who are trying to use fear and terror as a tactic to slow down what is not stoppable in that country.” (Emphasis added.)
Iraq is not, as the president said, “free to chart its own course.” And Burton’s statement that the course of democracy in Iraq is “not stoppable” is risibly, dangerously, wrong.
That is the principal problem with our war in Iraq. What has been accomplished is impermanent, so much so that the question “was it worth the sacrifice” has to be answered in the negative.
Unless Iraqi leaders quickly overcome their personal and political rivalries, this prediction will come true sooner than I had imagined. In its present state, Iraq can neither govern nor sustain itself. The idea that it can defend itself from the constant interference by Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey has been disproven conclusively over the past seven years.
It is unneccessary to await historians’ judgment a century from now to conclude that in Iraq we have not even achieved a brief respite. The war the terror-sponsoring nations wage against us is unabated, the terror sponsors unharmed by the war in Iraq. As I have written here many times, whether we stay in Iraq — or in Afghanstan — for another year or another century, we cannot win the war because we are fighting only the enemy’s proxies.
War, as Sun Tzu wrote about 2,300 years ago, is of the most vital importance to a state. So, he wrote, “it is mandatory that it be thoroughly studied.” To that we must add that the study of war is not limited to the art of war. The aims of a war must be studied before, during and after the conflict.
Any war — from the Romans’ first war against Carthage to World War I to our war in Iraq — is aimed either at conquest or at ending a threat. Either way, the goal is to establish a durable peace. And wars that result in only a brief respite from conflict cannot be characterized as won.
To Obama, war is a bothersome diversion from his domestic agenda. Rather than demonstrating that he or his advisors are studying the war we are in, its goals or its means, his decisions on Iraq and Afghanistan appear calculated only to avoid criticism that would lessen his success in pushing his radical transformation of our economy through Congress.
The study of war is an obligation of those who pursue the profession of arms. But — as much and more — it is the obligation of those who are chosen to lead nations in time of war. We shall listen closely tomorrow night for any sign that Obama understands that obligation. There is no reason to expect that he does.