Earlier this week, President Barack Obama stood with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in the South Court Auditorium of the White House to announce that “a war is ending.” Two days later, the president visited Fort Bragg to offer an encomium to post-9/11 veterans. “Your service belongs to the ages,” he told the assembled troops.
By the end of the year, all U.S. combat troops in Iraq will have slipped across the border into Kuwait, and America’s war in Iraq will be over.
The president’s political staff carefully crafted the public-relations campaign around the war’s end. The issue, after all, is a political IED. Obama had to take credit for keeping a campaign promise while avoiding the appearance of enjoying a political victory lap among the ashes of a war that cost 4,483 American lives.
The president also had to avoid portraying the end of the war in any way that conjures memories of George W. Bush’s fatefully premature victory ceremony in 2003—the now-infamous display of hubris in which the former president landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln wearing a flight suit and gave a speech in front of a banner that read “mission accomplished” days before Iraq descended into a chaotic and bloody insurgency. Any whiff of such a blunder ran the risk of making Obama seem naïve about the many challenges facing the nascent democracy.
Presidential caution, however justified, need not dampen progressives’ sense of accomplishment. Those who spearheaded the movement to end the war should take a moment to step back and examine their success. The end of the war has finally arrived.
Without the progressive movement, America would be approaching only the ninth year of John McCain’s hundred years' war in Mesopotamia. Recent Republican presidential debates and op-eds from conservative true believers underscore the fact that an end to the war was not a foregone conclusion.
To be sure, the U.S. will retain its largest diplomatic presence of any country in the world in Iraq. And due to restrictions on U.S. troops, American diplomats will be protected by legions of private security contractors. But American youth will no longer patrol the streets of Baghdad, Basra, or Fallujah, praying that they get through the day without rolling over a roadside bomb or wandering into a sniper’s crosshairs. Instead of a never-ending and strategically stupid conflict, Americans and Iraqis will now interact through staid speeches and formal diplomatic meetings. Memos have replaced mortars.
This week’s events are the closest thing the 9/11 generation will see to the surrender on the decks of the USS Missouri that so clearly marked the end of World War II. The end of today’s wars, like modern warfare itself, will be murky, complicated, and tickertape-free. But the psychological break is important. And this month, with the last American combat troops leaving Iraq, that shift in mind-set will be complete. The process of healing the wounds of war can now begin—starting with thousands of veterans who have come back in need of jobs, education, and medical care.
The end of the war also finds Iraq grappling with the legacy of war as well as a host of political and social issues that continue to be beyond the reach of military solutions. As Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group has pointed out, the Iraqi government is made up of a broad coalition of parties that remain deeply divided, a dynamic that caused a nine-month delay in forming a government last year and will continue to frustrate day-to-day governing.
On top of that gridlock, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki continues to consolidate power. The last few months have seen several raids to purge alleged “Baathists"—former members of Saddam Hussein’s ruling party—from government. With the raids, al-Maliki took aim more at his political opponents than would-be coup plotters and raised fears that Iraq might return to strongman rule.
Iraq still lacks an oil law that would establish the terms for how the revenues from the country’s massive reserves, the world’s fourth-largest, will be divided between the central government in Baghdad and the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region. Recently, the Kurdish government inflamed tensions with the central government by initiating a deal with Exxon Mobil to develop oil in disputed territories.
The effects of war on Iraqi citizens have been profound. Aside from the estimated 100,000 Iraqis who were killed during the war, approximately 1.3 million people are still internally displaced in Iraq, and about one million are emigrants, mostly in Syria and Jordan.
Iraq will also face the challenge of ensuring its sovereignty and independence. Although Iranian influence is overhyped, huge gaps remain in Iraq’s ability to secure its airspace and borders. The changes to regional politics wrought by the Arab Spring also pose significant challenges. Maliki continues to back the Syrian government, even as the body count and international condemnation of the Bashar al-Assad regime mount. What’s more, Maliki’s response to protests in his own country by Sunni Arabs calling for more representation in government has not been encouraging.
American politicians like to say that violence has slowed and “politics has broken out” in Iraq. But politics has broken out in the U.S. as well, thanks in large part to the efforts of progressives. Today, both countries find their interests better served by ending the U.S. war and shifting their relationship to one of two sovereign states interacting on the basis of mutual respect and mutual interests. It’s been a long time coming.