America's military misadventure in Iraq comes to an end this week, with Tuesday's official declaration of an end to combat operations and a handover of authority to the Iraqi government. It's a strange end -- neither victory nor defeat -- to a war made all the stranger since it's not entirely clear what's ending here. Combat troops will be gone, but tens of thousands of other troops will remain for at least 18 months. These are armed soldiers in a still-violent environment, and thus there may well be combat.
A perhaps true end for the war is currently scheduled for December of 2011 when all troops are set to be withdrawn. Still, nobody knows for sure what will happen if Iraqi leaders fail to reach a peaceful accord on how to form a new governing coalition. But to the extent to which this "end" to the war is in part a product of political spin, it's also a clear demonstration of the fact that the Obama administration's policy of disengagement has succeeded as spectacularly as the Bush administration's policy of invasion failed.
And it's important to recall the scope of that failure. The war was initially framed primarily in terms of the need to halt an Iraqi nuclear-weapons program that didn't exist. Given that there are no benefits to halting a nonexistent program, any price would be too high. So, naturally, justifications began to shift in a more humanitarian direction -- the invasion was needed to spread freedom.
But as Matt Duss, Peter Juul, and Brian Katulis observed in a May "Iraq War Ledger" report, for a humanitarian endeavor, the human cost of the invasion was terrifyingly high. Many Iraqis are better-off than they were under Saddam Hussein's rule, but around 100,000 Iraqi civilians perished in the violence the war unleashed. About 10,000 members of the Iraqi security forces we trained died. Nobody seems to know exactly how many Iraqis were wounded, but we had seven serious injuries for every U.S. fatality, so we can guess on the presence of many tens of thousands of maimed Iraqi civilians.
And then there are the refugees -- 1.9 million displaced internationally and 2.6 million internally displaced. All this at a direct budgetary cost of somewhere over $1 trillion dollars. In strategic terms, the invasion led to years of underinvestment in Afghanistan's stability and has mostly served to increase the regional power of Iran.
Against this backdrop, the policy of disengagement from Iraq over the past 18 months has been a stunning success. Not because it's solved all of Iraq's problems -- it hasn't -- but because it's solved one of America's biggest problems since the war began, the continued pouring of resources into a mission that lacked clear rationale. At some point in 2004 or 2005, the adventure became essentially self-justifying. Troops needed to stay in Iraq long enough to salvage some kind of outcome that would somehow justify the decision to invade in the first place. But there's simply no redeeming an irredeemable mission. The country, however, was trapped into a polarizing debate about "winning" or "losing" a war in which conservatives refused to admit "defeat." But occupying a medium-sized politically divided country whose population is hostile to your presence is a game you only win by refusing to play.
Hawks like Paul Wolfowitz are seizing the moment of declining political hostility to the war to argue for a longer-term mission in Iraq. He points to the Korean War -- "When the war was over, the United States did not abandon South Korea" -- and suggests the same logic should apply to Iraq.
To even begin to think about the analogy seriously is to uncover its glaring flaws. South Korea was a country threatened by a neighboring regime -- North Korea -- that was allied with the communist bloc in the Cold War. We supported the defense of South Korea, as we supported the defense of West Germany and other frontline states: as part of an overall global competition with the Soviet Union. There's nothing remotely similar happening in Iraq. Wolfowitz’s contention that we need to stay because "Iraq occupies a key position in the Persian Gulf, a strategically important region of the world -- a position that is all the more important because of the dangerous ambitions of Iran's rulers" is just a kind of lazy militarism. It's true that the oil in Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia is a valuable commodity. It's true that Iran's nuclear activities are dangerous. But keeping soldiers in Iraq over the long term will not discourage Iran from building a nuclear weapon or accomplish anything else of use.
It's true, of course, that if we stick to the schedule and really remove all American soldiers from Iraq by the end of next year that the future will be uncertain. But if we've learned anything over seven years of occupation, it should be that all kinds of things -- both good and bad -- can happen under the watchful eye of U.S. military forces. The only clear upside to staying is that it would give the architects of the war yet more chances to somehow try to establish that the invasion was "worth it." One big plus to having a president who never wanted to invade in the first place is that he's free to make decisions free of such considerations. This week's announcement was welcome, and the one I expect to hear late next year that all troops will be gone from Iraq forever will be even better.