It was hardly surprising that President Barack Obama shied away from the previous administration’s premature 2003 characterization of a “mission accomplished” in proclaiming the official end of the U.S. combat role in Iraq.
Aides had cautioned this would be no “victory lap,” and as Obama observed in Tuesday night’s Oval Office address, “Our combat mission is ending, but our commitment to Iraq’s future is not.”
With 50,000 U.S. troops still in Iraq, additional casualties and costs are inevitable, though in declining numbers.
But if one accepts Obama’s realistic but limited definition of the U.S. mission as having given Iraq “the opportunity to embrace a new destiny,” the last seven years have made that possible in a way that did not exist in those misleadingly optimistic days after the lightning overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
Whether Iraqis can achieve that destiny remains uncertain. So, too, is the larger issue certain to be the subject of an extended historical debate, of whether the massive U.S. investment of human and financial resources was worthwhile.
Despite its own high toll and the continuing violence and disruptions of Iraqis’ daily lives, indications are that post-Saddam Iraq is a better place for more of its people than was the ex-dictator’s brutal dictatorship.
At the same time, Iraq’s political instability and its leaders’ difficulty in providing basic services show it is far from what President George W. Bush predicted would be “an inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region.”
More important, as Obama noted, the U.S. continues to suffer the economic consequences of the way Bush undertook vast expenditures and troop commitments while consistently minimizing the costs and the risks.
“The United States has paid a huge price to put the future of Iraq in the hands of its people,” Obama said, declaring that spending $1 trillion on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has “short-changed investments in our own people and contributed to record deficits.”
Besides, thousands of brave young American military men and women continue to suffer the physical and psychic costs of being sent on repeated tours of duty in a war begun under highly questionable circumstances.
And the U.S. effort to stabilize Afghanistan, which was far more involved than Iraq in the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, continues to suffer from the mistaken decision to attack Iraq. In withdrawing from Iraq, Obama noted, “we are now able to apply the resources necessary to go on offense” in Afghanistan.
The decision to emphasize Iraq over Afghanistan was one of several miscalculations. The Bush administration rejected suggestions it would need more troops to subdue Iraq, pooh-poohed critics who said the war would prove far more costly financially and ignored warnings that it would be far harder to manage a defeated Iraq than to defeat it.
Indeed, perhaps the greatest irony of the whole misbegotten enterprise is that the most prescient warning came from the president’s own father, George H.W. Bush, and Gen. Brent Scowcroft in their 1998 book defending their decision not to pursue Saddam’s defeated army at the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
“We would have been forced to occupy Baghdad and, in effect, rule Iraq” with “no viable ‘exit strategy,”’ they wrote, thus becoming “an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land.”
To be sure, the enterprise might have been even more disastrous had it not been for the desperate 2007 effort to pour in American troops in a last-ditch military “surge” that helped to arrest Iraq’s downward spiral and paved the way for the U.S.-Iraqi agreement for a U.S. troop withdrawal.
Bush deserves credit for persisting in the face of bipartisan carping, from critics including then-Sen. Obama, though it’s probably also true that political pressures in both countries and U.S. diplomatic efforts contributed to the climate that made U.S. withdrawal possible.
Obama’s speech was designed to assure Americans he is carrying out his campaign promises. Unfortunately for his legacy, his handling of the nation’s persistent economic woes will likely count for more, relegating the page he turned Tuesday night to little more than a footnote to his presidency.
— Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. firstname.lastname@example.org