After almost nine years, the Iraq War was officially declared over Thursday. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta made the announcement at a ceremony at the Baghdad airport. I have my doubts.
I remember all the beating of drums coming out of the White House during the run-up to the war—and how foolish it was. Then Secretary of State Colin Power, a man I like very much, went in front of the UN Security Council on February 5, 2003 to make America’s case that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and was an imminent threat to world peace. I delayed going into my office to see his presentation on TV. I kept waiting for the smoking gun. The best Powell could show was a cap pistol that looked like the cheap toy it was. The intelligence on which he based his presentation—at the behest of President George W. Bush—was all a fabrication. Powell later called his appearance a blot on his reputation. He was, unfortunately, correct. (For a take on this, check out a CBS TV News report four years later at www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=2437033n).
Mr. Bush may have been well meaning. But as Shakespeare has Friar Laurence say in Romeo and Juliet, “Virtue itself turns to vice being misapplied, and vice sometime’s by action dignified.
We know what happened next. A quick military victory gave way to a totally inept post-war effort to rebuild Iraq as a democracy friendly to American and Western interests. The Bush administration hadn’t a clue. In May 2003, Paul Bremer, the U.S.’s chief civilian administrator, disbanded the Iraqi army led by and composed largely of Sunni Muslims. All hell broke loose. Washington seemed content to release tens of thousands of armed men to the streets without jobs and any hopes for a meaningful future.
I remember telling friends before the war started that were I president, I’d send a message to Saddam’s commanders asking them to stand down or risk annihilation. American forces would bypass them and displace Saddam. Then we’d work with the generals to install a new leader and keep the military intact—with pay raises. Would that have been a perfect solution? I doubt it. But given its history, the Middle East doesn’t lend itself to perfect solutions—at least not by American standards. What we ended up with was chaos at the cost of 4,487 Americans killed and 32,226 wounded. Not to mention tens of thousands of American troops coming home with all of the emotional wounds war causes. All with a price tag of nearly a trillion dollars.
Oh, and Iraq suffered from 100,000 to 150,000 civilian and military deaths. The injuries seem uncountable.
So the last hundreds of troops will leave over the next two weeks. Only a few trainers and advisers will remain. And let’s be clear about this: Our troops—many who served multiple deployments—performed bravely, and deserve all the credit we can give. If one thing has gone right regarding the Iraq War, it has been the American people’s support of our troops. Vets of Vietnam suffered the indignity of an entirely different experience.
And now? Iraq will require many years before it can achieve stability. If it can achieve stability. If it can do so in any kind of democratic form. There will be blood, and we can’t stop it. Try standing on the beach and telling the tide not to come in.
Because the old saying attributed to Yogi Berra—as every pithy saying now is—has never been truer: “It isn’t over ‘til it’s over.” And, I fear, it isn’t over yet.
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