NOTE: This post, a copy of today’s AJC column, includes material published earlier on the blog.
Eight years ago this week, the Bush administration was set to launch an all-out “shock and awe” publicity campaign designed to drive us into war in Iraq. (You may recall that the effort was held back until after Labor Day because, as a White House official later explained, “from a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.”)
It’s important that the American people remember that campaign, because it reminds us how easily fear can be used to manipulate public opinion. Dire warnings of mushroom clouds rising over American cities and of Iraqi unmanned aerial vehicles launching WMD attacks against us may seem implausible in hindsight, but coming from top U.S. officials, they seemed all too real. Over the next few months, they frightened the American people and Congress into an ill-conceived invasion that would cost more than 4,000 American lives and hundreds of billions of dollars.
Tonight, President Obama is scheduled to go on national television to announce that the U.S. combat role in Iraq has finally ended. Although 50,000 troops remain, they are no longer actively deployed in support of Iraqi security. In fact, in his radio address Saturday, Obama reiterated his pledge that “by the end of next year, all of our troops will be home.”
The most interesting thing about the president’s speech tonight will be its tone. As he did Saturday, Obama will no doubt offer a well-deserved tribute to the more than a million Americans who have served in uniform in Iraq. He is also certain to note that the drawdown honors his 2008 campaign pledge. (It’s hard to give him a lot of credit for that, though, since the withdrawal schedule was largely set by President Bush.)
In a speech last week to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Vice President Joe Biden was largely upbeat about the situation in Iraq, noting that violence has decreased from three or four years ago and that Iraqi security forces now have responsibility for defending their country. Biden also claimed that “Iraqi leaders who once settled disputes through violence are at this very moment ironing out their differences in face-to-face negotiations,” predicting that those negotiations will soon produce a new Iraqi government.
I wish I shared Biden’s optimism, but I don’t. While the 2007 surge of U.S. troops succeeded in halting the unraveling of Iraq, the larger goals of the surge remain unmet. The Iraqis have yet to enact an oil law to fairly distribute the proceeds of their national wealth, and they have yet to work out how to share power among their major sects. As a result, more than five months after national elections in March, no new national government has taken shape.
And without progress, there will be regression. Although it remains below peak levels, violence has begun to increase again, and the Iraqi people appear increasingly discouraged about the prospects of democracy actually functioning. Each week without an elected government moves them closer to reverting to cruder, more familiar forms of authority.
For all those reasons and more, I suspect that Obama will be more careful than Biden in expressing his expectations about Iraq’s future. At best, he could argue that the U.S. military mission in Iraq has been a success, but he cannot claim that the war itself has been won.
In fact, the Iraq war is likely to end as the war in Vietnam ended. That doesn’t mean that the last Americans in Baghdad will have to be airlifted by helicopter from the Green Zone. It does mean that as in Vietnam, events in Iraq have now been arranged to allow U.S. forces to be withdrawn under seemingly honorable conditions, leaving Iraq’s future to be determined by Iraqis.
As it should have been all along.