This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.
Mission accomplished. Finally.
There’ll be no “Victory in Iraq” day. The legacy of America’s military intervention in Iraq is far too disputed, complicated and unsettled. Still, this month’s withdrawal of the last U.S. combat forces – Stryker units from Joint Base Lewis-McChord – deserves more celebration than it’s gotten.
Roughly 50,000 troops will remain in Iraq until the end of next year; they will largely serve the Iraqi army in a support and training role. The sight of American soldiers on patrol in the streets of Baghdad and elsewhere is history.
Iraqis, and the occasional American, are still getting killed in Iraq, but this looks less like war than the hostile peace that prevailed in Korea after the large-scale hostilities there ended in 1953. Despite a recent spate of insurgent attacks, the level of violence is a small fraction of what it was a few years ago.
Here’s hoping that the passage of years brings more parallels to Korea. That very unpopular war ended in a murky stalemate, but ultimately produced a thriving and democratic South Korea. U.S. troops remain in South Korea, more than a half century later, helping keep North Korea at bay.
A bleaker potential parallel is Vietnam, where the United States left a hopelessly corrupt and weak ally that collapsed in the face of a renewed communist offensive.
Iraq has potentialities for good and ill all its own. Saddam Hussein is gone, and good riddance.
The intelligence on his “weapons of mass destruction” may have been staggeringly mistaken, but the same survey that found no WMDs in Iraq also concluded that he intended to push for a nuclear arsenal once his regime rid itself of international sanctions and regained control of the country’s oil revenues.
The flip side of that nightmare is the new threat of Iranian dominance of a Shiite-ruled Iraq and the possibility of a new bloodletting between Shiites and Sunnis. If the new Iraq turns out no better than the old Iraq, the sacrifice of so many U.S. and Iraqi lives will be remembered as an utter waste.
But if Iraq ultimately emerges with a decent government that isn’t bent on invading and intimidating its neighbors, the war may in hindsight wind up looking more like Korea than Vietnam.
In military terms, America’s troops achieved a clear victory.
In 2003, they collapsed Saddam’s army in a matter of weeks; in the dismal occupation that followed, they endured the onslaughts of a lethal insurgency and wound up caught in the cross-fire of a sectarian bloodbath. They suffered through years of strategic blunders before George W. Bush finally found a general, David Petraeus, who understood counter-insurgency.
In the end, the U.S. forces won the Iraqi government enough time to stand on its own legs, which was as much as anyone could have asked of them. The newly returned JBLM soldiers and other Iraq veterans probably won’t get a parade, but they came home covered with honor, and they deserve one.