At the Iraq war's end, a shrug of uncertainty
The images for ending America's war in Iraq were appropriately tentative rather than triumphal: The president spoke in Washington of turning a page; the vice president talked here of starting a new chapter; the defense secretary said it was too early even to judge whether the war was worth it.
But the politicians and generals who gathered here Wednesday for a transition ceremony agreed on the fact that matters most to the Iraqi and American people, which is that the U.S. combat phase of the war is indeed over -- after more than seven years of fighting, a trillion dollars and more than 4,000 American combat deaths. An invasion that began in 2003 with a false rationale ended with a shrug of uncertainty.
The guarded language used to mark the end of combat was appropriate, for Iraq is in many ways an unfinished war. Its ultimate success or failure won't be clear for some years, when we can see whether Iraq has sustained its new democracy or plunged back into sectarian strife and political chaos.
Defense Secretary Bob Gates offered a conditional response when he was asked whether the war justified its cost: "I think that it really requires a historian's perspective in terms of what happens here in the long run."
Vice President Biden, too, eschewed upbeat political rhetoric when he said at the ceremony in one of Saddam Hussein's marble palaces that the Iraq war had been "as complicated as any in our history." He quoted the military strategist Karl von Clausewitz by saying "war is the realm of uncertainty," suggesting that this precept applies, sometimes, even to outcomes.
Iraqis who fear (or in some cases, hope) that the Americans will secretly continue in combat, rather than in the limited role of "advise and assist," haven't gotten the message. An American general summed it up this way: "If you're on your third tour here and you've got to flush out a bad guy, you're going to tell your Iraqi counterpart, 'You go down into that hole, you first.' "
Gates, asked what he would tell an Iraqi who complained that America had knocked down the old order and was leaving without creating a stable, new one, answered: "I think at this point it's the Iraqis' responsibility."
Talking with Iraqis in recent days, I've heard foreboding about what lies ahead as U.S. military power declines. "Frankly speaking, we are not moving ahead," said former prime minister Ayad Allawi, whose party won the largest number of seats in the March parliamentary election but so far has been unable to form a government.
"There is going to be a vacuum in the country," Allawi said in a telephone interview. "I don't think the U.S. should dictate things, but they should continue to be engaged." American officials keep insisting that "engagement" is indeed the new watchword, but their involvement in recent months, led by Biden, has been episodic and mostly unsuccessful.
One of the mysteries of U.S. policy is why Washington keeps pushing a formula that will allow Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to keep his job (or another top post) at a time when he is rejected by nearly all Iraqi political parties. America's silent ally in this peculiar gambit is Iran. After so much pain, Iraq deserves better.
America has spent so much blood and treasure in Iraq that it would be wrong to walk away completely, however attractive that may seem politically. I was forcefully reminded of the reasons to stay involved by Kassim Daoud, a respected Shiite politician from Nasiriyah who served as national security minister and has close ties to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. He recalled this week that the Iraqi people have paid a dear price for democracy -- in the carnage that followed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and in the courageous turnout for Iraq's first election in 2005 and subsequent balloting.
"The Iraqi people gave everything for the democratic system, but so far, they have not tasted the fruits," Daoud said.
One Iraqi told me a story to ponder if you find yourself wondering whether we accomplished anything at all in this cruel war. The leader of a big Iraqi Shiite party was summoned last month to Tehran and instructed to throw his support behind Maliki. The Iraqi refused, at considerable risk to himself and his party. The reason, said my informant, was that this Shiite leader wanted a strong Iraqi government and a competent leader -- without dictation from America, Iran or anyone else. That's an Iraq worth caring about.