Not with a bang but a whimper — T.S. Eliot
So officially ended the American involvement in the Iraq war, with a quiet flag-lowering ceremony Thursday in Baghdad overseen by U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta.
More than 1.5 million U.S. soldiers served in Iraq, 30,000 were wounded, and nearly 4,500 were killed serving their country. The Iraqi casualty toll dwarfs those numbers, and will only grow as sectarian strife continues.
So how will history portray this nine-year war? As a victory for the United States, or as something less, similar to the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, which left the enemy in place but without an actual surrender by either side?
President Obama, a war critic before he was elected, chose not to make a historical assessment in a speech Wednesday to troops returning from Iraq to Fort Bragg, N.C. His only allusion to President George W. Bush’s decision to bomb Baghdad was to say, “It is harder to end a war than to begin one.”
Critics who have, or had, their own presidential aspirations said Obama was wrong to stick with his plan to pull out this year. Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) said it will embolden Iran. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, citing the pre-Obama troop surge in 2007, accused Obama of “doing a victory lap on President Bush’s wisdom.”
But Obama was hardly jumping with glee when he spoke at Fort Bragg. He paid tribute to the soldiers for doing their jobs despite the political rhetoric fueling the Iraq debate over the past nine years. “Your patriotism, your commitment to fulfill your mission … That did not waiver,” he said.
From the 2007 surge level of 170,000 troops, fewer than 6,000 U.S. soldiers remained in Iraq last week, with about 4,000 of them scheduled to move to Kuwait by the end of the month. But finally moving these last soldiers out doesn’t mean the United States is turning its back on Iraq. In its massive embassy, the State Department plans to spend $6.5 billion next year in Iraq.
That’s a far cry from the $800 billion spent in Iraq since that night of “shock and awe” that was supposed to lead us to “weapons of mass destruction.” Didn’t happen. But the murderous Saddam Hussein was taken down. And Iraq’s nascent democracy, though threatened, may yet survive. If it does, maybe history will declare the war a success.
Regardless, most Americans today are happy to see their soldiers come home. Maybe it will help the country focus on building an economy to provide them with jobs that don’t require them to tote guns.