This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.
So that’s that. As of the end of the year, the Obama administration will have withdrawn all U.S. troops from Iraq, with the exception of a small contingent of presumably nervous embassy guards.
Obama’s recent announcement that the war was over was mere formality. For America, the serious fighting in Iraq ended a couple years ago, when Iraqi security forces took full responsibility for Iraqi security.
What’s driving the final withdrawal – a legal dispute – seems ridiculously anticlimactic. Some Iraqi leaders would as soon have U.S. forces on hand to keep training their troops, and the Obama administration would as soon keep them there.
The deal-breaker was the U.S. insistence on criminal immunity for American troops in the face of the Iraqi parliament’s refusal to grant that immunity. No triumphal parades, no helicopters fleeing from rooftops, just a breakdown in back-room negotiations. A whimper, not a bang.
The whimper, though, says much about the achievements of American troops in Iraq.
The United States blundered into this war. The Central Intelligence Agency (along with its British and French counterparts) read the intelligence wrong and concluded that Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship was hiding chemical and biological weapons.
President George W. Bush and his lieutenants ignored all contrary evidence and launched an invasion they were already predisposed to launch. They then spent three years ignoring the bloody failures of their counterinsurgency strategy before switching to Gen. David Petraeus’ successful alternative.
The troops on the ground endured all of this, losing more than 4,000 lives to incompetence on high.
Their fundamental mission, though, was to buy the new Iraqi government enough time to stand on its feet and defend itself. In this they succeeded. The Iraqis’ confidence that they can do without the U.S. military is a testament to the military’s success.
A far greater testament is the difference between the old and new Iraqs. With Saddam Hussein’s vicious regime fading from memory, it’s easy to overlook how big a trade-up this is.
Unlike Saddam’s Iraq, today’s Iraq has a non-bellicose and vaguely democratic government that – for all its corruption and other flaws – doesn’t invade its neighbors, doesn’t write checks to the families of suicide bombers, doesn’t gas Kurdish villagers, doesn’t run rape rooms or otherwise terrorize Iraqis of suspect loyalty.
It doesn’t aspire to use its oil wealth to acquire nuclear weapons and build a military machine to intimidate the Middle East.
Plenty could still go wrong in Iraq, especially if Iran makes a power grab after the United States leaves. Still, American troops deserve credit for ridding the world of Saddam and giving Iraq’s new management the luxury of watching them pack up and head home.