This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.
Let’s forget for a moment that U.S. troops didn’t leave Iraq on Tuesday, only the streets of its cities.
Let’s forget that their combat role in the countryside and on the borders is likely to continue for more than a year.
Let’s also forget that Americans will be supporting Iraqi security forces from behind the scenes until the end of 2011.
That’s a lot of forgetting to do. Still, Iraq’s newly declared "National Sovereignty Day" left everyone with a lot of celebrating to do.
In the United States, the disappearance of American soldiers from the cities of Iraq on Tuesday seemed almost a footnote to the death of Michael Jackson. That says much about America’s short memory and self-absorption.
In Baghdad, people danced, honked horns, pounded drums, and bedecked police cars with flags, ribbons and balloons. Some were bidding good riddance to the Americans, some were merely welcoming the full restoration of self-government. Either way, the majority of Iraqis seemed willing to trust their security to their own forces.
Much could still go very wrong in Iraq, as a murderous bombing in a Kirkuk market demonstrated Tuesday evening.
But much has gone very right in the last two years. Many of the original Sunni insurgents are taking a chance on the Shiite-dominated government. The endless, sickening, chain of mass slaughters has abated. The government’s army and police have a fighting chance of keeping a lid on the country’s tensions.
Immense credit for for this goes to the U.S. military.
It’s important to remember the baseline of early 2003: Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, which murdered Iraqis – particularly Shiites – by the thousands to preserve its grip on power.
The next baseline was hardly better: Bloodletting on a vast scale after the U.S. invasion, as militants launched a guerrilla war, and Sunnis and Shiites massacred each other wholesale.
The violence erupted amid a string of strategic blunders by the Bush administration, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s disastrous failure to deploy enough troops to guard the borders and secure the streets.
The "surge" – a combination of innovative strategies and increased strength – finally let the Army and Marines carry out their fundamental mission: providing Iraqis with enough security to seek political settlements and begin solving their own problems.
Given the right conditions, the U.S. military succeeded brilliantly.
Iraq could yet fall apart after the American withdrawal. At this point, though, there’s no going back. As Iraqis celebrate the first self-government they’ve tasted in many decades, Americans should be paying their own respects to the U.S. troops that made Sovereignty Day possible.