You might have thought the Iraq war was over after listening to President Obama on Tuesday.
Eager to unload the albatross he inherited, Obama proclaimed that the American combat mission had ended. “We have met our responsibility,” he said. “Now it is time to turn the page.”
Would that it were so easy. The Iraq struggle has not yet ended; it is only entering a new phase. We will be ensnared in the legacy of this war long after our combat troops leave.
Indeed, there was an oddly static quality to Obama’s remarks on the Iraq war. He didn’t talk of the past seven years of struggle or the flawed Bush administration policies that led to Iraq’s near-implosion.
As for the future, he touched on plans for “long-term partnership” with Iraq and greater diplomatic involvement. But he did not explain what this will mean or promote the idea to the public.
The president knows Americans are weary of the Iraq war; polls show they don’t think it was worth fighting. So his emphasis was on moving on.
I can understand Obama’s reluctance to reopen partisan wounds over the Iraq issue; to the contrary, he stressed he had phoned President George W. Bush on the day of the speech, and repeatedly praised the service of our troops. But the past seven years of war can’t be airbrushed away, even if many Americans would like that. We have to digest the meaning of this tragic encounter, which will continue to haunt us and Iraqis as well.
Ironically, some Republicans criticized Obama for not giving Bush credit for the troop “surge” that helped halt Iraq’s sectarian fighting. But Obama could not have invoked the surge without revisiting the errors that led to the war’s inception. Nor can the surge obscure the Bush White House’s arrogant mismanagement of the postwar period, which caused hideous suffering for Iraqis and loss of life for our troops.
Yes, the surge — or, more correctly, the strategy of Gen. David Petraeus and key officers — helped stop Iraq’s civil war. But the Bush team’s predictions about the war’s strategic benefits for us and the region proved dangerously wrong.
Bush administration officials insisted that Saddam Hussein’s fall would usher in a new era of democracy in the Middle East. Iran’s theocracy would be the next domino to fall, and Arab-Israeli peace would follow.
Instead, postwar chaos in Iraq soiled democracy’s name in the region. Autocracy remains triumphant. Iraq is a democracy in name, yet five months after elections, its sectarian factions can’t form a government.
Meantime, the elimination of Saddam left Iran the strongest power in the region, and its influence has grown steadily over the past seven years. The Mideast peace process froze, and it is being revived — barely — only this week.
Given U.S. failures in postwar Iraq, American competence and capacity are in question throughout the Middle East and beyond. Our influence in this critical region is waning, which hurts our ability to promote Mideast peace talks and deal with Iran.
In Iraq, we spent (and wasted) billions, yet Iraqi infrastructure remains broken. The most visible symptom of failure: Electricity is delivered only a few hours a day as temperatures hit 120 degrees.
Although violence is down, Iraq’s educated middle class has been decimated. At least 100,000 Iraqi civilians have died since we invaded, and millions more are still refugees. Iraqi women were once the most advanced in the region, but their position has grown much worse.
The American impulse, as reflected in Obama’s speech, will be to move on, especially given our own economic problems and our commitment in Afghanistan. Yet — although Iraq is very much Bush’s war, and its tragedies his responsibility — Obama can’t turn the page. The next phase of Iraq’s struggle will happen on his watch.
Iraq’s future is uncertain, but we can still play an important role there, devoid of past illusions. We should commit wholeheartedly to the long-term civilian partnership we’ve signed on to, but which Congress may be reluctant to fund. If Iraqis want us to keep some troops there after 2011, we should do so to prevent a power vacuum that others will fill.
We have a strategic interest in ensuring Iraq doesn’t sink back into chaos or dictatorship. But we also have a moral duty. We owe it to 4,400 dead U.S. troops and untold thousands of slain Iraqis to keep trying to make the country whole.
— Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. firstname.lastname@example.org