Bali, Indonesia In the final days of the U.S. war in Iraq, the outlook for America’s military entanglements is markedly different from the confusing, convulsive first days.
Early on Iraq looked, to many, like one in a string of big conflicts in a “war on terror.”
That was the view of John Abizaid when the now-retired Army general led U.S. forces in Iraq in 2003-04. At a U.S. base in northern Iraq one day in early 2004, Abizaid told soldiers preparing to return home that he hoped they would remain in uniform and keep building combat experience.
Asked by an Associated Press reporter why he had made that pitch, Abizaid said, “I think the country is going to face more of these (ground wars) in the years ahead.”
That was a widely accepted, and often dreaded, view at the time.
Now, with the last American troops set to depart by year’s end, Iraq seems more likely to signal an end to such long and enormously costly undertakings in the name of preventing another terrorist attack on U.S. soil — at least under the administration of President Barack Obama. He opposed the Iraq war and has declared that “the tides of war are receding.”
With Obama also pledging to end the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan within three years, the military’s focus is turning to places such as Yemen and Somalia.
There, the approach is different. Aerial drones, proxy forces and small teams of U.S. commandos are the preferred formula for containing the Islamic extremists who would plot terrorist attacks against the U.S.
Libya, too, has so far been a case for limited U.S. military intervention. The U.S. cleared the sky ahead of a NATO-led air campaign to protect civilians without putting any troops on the ground.
It took about eight months and cost the U.S. about $1.1 billion to achieve the Libyan rebels’ goal of toppling Col. Moammar Gadhafi.
The potential for bigger conflicts persists in places such as Pakistan, whose growing arsenal of nuclear weapons sets it apart from other potential hot spots.
Iran is a major worry, too, in light of its suspected drive to build a nuclear bomb and its proclaimed goal of wiping out Israel. But a U.S. invasion of Iran, on a scale like Iraq, seems highly unlikely for now.
There are other troublesome security challenges facing the U.S., including in Asia where China is expanding its military and asserting its influence.
But the Obama approach — not unique, but distinctive in comparison to that of his predecessor, George W. Bush — is to try to prevent festering security problems from growing into full-blown crises.
The U.S. military can play a role in those cases without being called on to invade and depose a government.
Robert Gates captured this idea in a speech last winter to Army cadets at the U.S. Military Academy in which he said it would be unwise to ever fight another war like Iraq or Afghanistan.
“In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it,” Gates said.
Even with the Iraq exit in sight, the U.S. military is unlikely to wash its hands of the problems it will leave behind after nearly nine years of fighting. Wars don’t end that neatly, and it is yet to be seen whether U.S. troops take on new missions in Iraq in 2012 to keep the country on track.
Obama is ending the U.S. role in the Iraq war, but that does not necessarily mean the war itself is ending.
Al-Qaida in Iraq remains. Ethnic and sectarian tensions persist. Chaos could again descend upon the country, testing the resilience of Iraqis who suffered enormously under Saddam Hussein and again during the U.S. war.
Even after the U.S. declares an end to its presence in Iraq in December, about 157 U.S. service personnel are expected to remain, working out of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad under Army Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen.