In February 2009, less than two months after he took office, President Obama had flew to Camp Lejeune, N.C., and laid out his plan for ending the war in Iraq. He stood surrounded by camouflage-clad Marines, many of whom were just days away from being shipped off to Iraq or Afghanistan.
“Next month will mark the sixth anniversary of the war in Iraq,” Obama told the troops. “By any measure, this has already been a long war.”
Obama rose to national prominence in 2002 on the eve of the Iraq invasion by calling it a “dumb war; a rash war; a war based not on reason, but on passion; not on principle, but on politics.” His candidacy hinged on his promise to end it as quickly as possible.
He was far from the first person to wrestle with the question of how to bring the messy, grinding fight to a close. In March 2003, with American troops bogged down by guerilla attacks on the way to Baghdad, then-Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus turned to a reporter and uttered one of the most prescient sentences of the Iraq war: “Tell me how this ends.”
President Bush thought he had his answer — the “Mission Accomplished” moment — on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln two months later, shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein. “Because of you, our nation is more secure,” he told the sailors on the Lincoln. “Because of you, the tyrant has fallen, and Iraq is free.” But the war would consume Bush for the remainder of his presidency.
Obama followed Bush into the White House determined not to let his presidency be defined by war — especially not the one in Iraq, which had already cost more than 4,000 American lives and tens of thousands of Iraqi lives, when he took office.
His plans to end the conflict, though, have been undone by Iraq’s poisonous sectarian politics, Iranian meddling, his own mistakes and the devastating civil war across the border in Syria. Like Petraeus, he struggled to answer that most fundamental of questions: “Tell me how this ends.”
At Camp Lejeune, Obama sketched out one answer, telling the Marines that they had “fought against tyranny and disorder.” They had bled for their “best friends and for unknown Iraqis.” They had “served with honor.”
But they could not do the job of diplomats and civilian advisers who would stay behind after the troops came home to help the Iraqis forge a lasting peace. “We’ll help Iraqis strengthen institutions that are just, representative and accountable,” Obama promised. “We’ll build new ties of trade and of commerce, culture and education, that unleash the potential of the Iraqi people.”
But the final hours of the American occupation suggested a very different end.
We expect our wars to end in iconic moments. Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in 1865; the 1945 Life magazine photo of a sailor planting a kiss on an unsuspecting woman in Times Square; a helicopter frantically evacuating U.S. personnel from a CIA annex in Saigon in 1975.
“It’s harder to end a war than begin one,” Obama told troops at Fort Bragg on Dec. 14, 2011. He was right in a way he never anticipated.
The next day the American military’s top brass gathered at Baghdad International Airport to mark what was supposed to be the end of the war. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta offered up the usual praise for the troops. Gen. Lloyd Austin, who had pressed to keep a force of as many as 15,000 American troops in the country, gave a half-hearted endorsement to the proceedings, pronouncing Iraq a “relatively peaceful environment.”
The Iraqis offered up the ceremony’s most powerful statement by refusing at the last minute to attend. Just before the ceremony was to start, an American soldier was dispatched to snatch the placards reserving seats in the front row for then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the top members of his cabinet.
Two days later, the last American troops gathered at Contingency Operating Base Adder for the final convoy out of Iraq. At its peak, the base held more than 12,000 American troops and contractors, a Taco Bell, a movie theater and six bus routes.
The Americans were leaving behind 500 pickup trucks, buses and cars in the base motor pool, with the keys on the dashboards. “This place is going to be like Black Friday at Wal-Mart when we leave,” joked an Iraqi American interpreter.
Iraq’s problems were evident, even to a casual observer. A six-man Iraqi band, dressed in dirty blue uniforms, played a ragged marching song on dented trumpets and trombones as the Americans and Iraqis signed the final paperwork handing over the facility, which the Iraqis had renamed Imam Ali Air Base. Its only plane was a rusty, white passenger aircraft with no landing gear and a broken propeller.
The U.S. military flew in a gaggle of television reporters a few hours before the final convoy left for Kuwait. Geraldo Rivera, the Fox News personality and future “Dancing With the Stars” contestant, posed for pictures with the American soldiers. Some troops cooked hamburgers and hot dogs on a grill fashioned out of a steel barrel.
The Americans finally left the base about 3 a.m., rolling out under the cover of darkness as drones and attack helicopters circled protectively overhead.
The day after the Americans had cleared the border, Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government issued an arrest warrant for Iraq’s Sunni vice president, beginning a sectarian cleansing that would tear the country apart. In 2014, when the Iraqi army collapsed and the Islamic State swept through Iraq’s majority Sunni provinces, the Obama administration blamed Maliki for gutting the government and the military. Republicans blamed Obama for not pressing harder to keep an American force in the country. Senior military officials — many of whom believed that they had salvaged something close to victory by 2011 — blamed the political leadership in Washington for letting things spiral out of control in Iraq after the last troops left.
Obama responded to the Islamic State advance by sending in fighter jets, bombers and 475 military advisers. Today, the number of U.S. troops in Iraq is 5,000, and it is almost certain to grow. As Obama’s presidency draws to a close, he still struggles to define victory in a place like Iraq. In December 2015, after terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., Obama took another cut at it in a prime-time Oval Office address.
Victory was not getting sucked back into a “long and costly ground war in Iraq or Syria,” he said. “That’s what groups like ISIL want,” he said, using another name for the Islamic State. It had less to do with what actually happened on the ground in Iraq and Syria than how Americans reacted at home.
Instead of answering Petraeus’s question, Obama sought to flip it.
“Let’s make sure we never forget what makes us exceptional,” Obama said from the White House as he prepared to enter the final year of his presidency. “Let’s not forget that freedom is more powerful than fear.”