In one of the Bush Administration’s most infamous moments, President Bush boarded an aircraft carrier under a giant “Mission Accomplished” banner just as the serious problems in Iraq were beginning to emerge. Eight years later, Vice President Biden has visited Iraq to deliver a much more subdued speech with the same message — America has largely achieved its goals in Iraq, and is now preparing to leave. From the Wall Street Journal:
“The real way people gain influence other than through force is having an influence on the institutions, the formation of the institutions and the function of the institutions,” Mr. Biden said in an interview during his flight from Baghdad to Iraq’s Kurdish region in the north. “And that’s the U.S.” […]To keep Iran’s clout in check and maintain the U.S.’s influence in the absence of a troop presence, the Obama administration is preparing to make a push to ensure American institutions and expertise are available in postwar Iraq, said Mr. Biden, who spent three days in Iraq this week.
The Iraq War was unhappy, but it was no Vietnam. A new and at least somewhat democratic country has emerged out of the ashes of despotism and the chaos of civil war. Biden himself was among those who believed this day would never come, and urged that the United States partition Iraq into three independent countries, but events have proven him wrong. President Bush got many things wrong about the Iraq War, but he got one thing right: once in, we had to press on. Does anybody remember all the panicky declarations by leading politicians and prominent ex-officials that the war was lost, utterly lost, and we had no choice but to make an inglorious run for the exits? Many of these people supported the war in the beginning when it was popular, turned against it when it was unpopular, and counseled despair right up until the moment when victory appeared.
The lesson: be cautious about going in, but once in, don’t run at the first sign of trouble. War has a logic of its own; Bush and Cheney did not fully grasp what they were getting into when they invaded, underestimating the risks and overestimating the speed at which a reasonably stable Iraqi government could emerge. But they had the honesty and vision to hang tough once they were committed, and to their credit the American people, disenchanted with the war and disgusted with its leadership, refused to cut and run while hope endured. President Obama and Vice President Biden must be deeply grateful that President Bush ignored his critics and went ahead with the surge; if they want to reduce the partisan polarization in Washington they could perhaps say something about it as our troops come home.
Getting us out of the war successfully does not minimize President Bush’s responsibility for leading the country into a war based on claims about weapons of mass destruction that turned out to be wrong — and for botching the occupation as thoroughly and for as long as he did. But once in he neither tried to evade responsibility for his actions nor took the easy way out; in the end he found good commanders and gave them what they needed to win despite vociferous criticism and near-unanimous predictions of doom.
The war that then-Senators Obama and Biden said back in 2008 was the important war –the war they promised to win from the White House — is by contrast not going very well and it is hard to see a strategy for victory. Can anyone doubt that if they were in opposition they, along with most of the Democrats in the Senate, would be banging the drums for withdrawal, holding hearings and doing everything possible to obstruct President McCain’s conduct of the war in Afghanistan even if he was following the identical policy to President Obama’s current approach?
For all the talk about irresponsible partisanship from the GOP today (and much of it is justified), at least the party is not using defeatism as a political tool to stir up the base.
There is something else to celebrate as America steps down in Iraq. Via Meadia would have preferred a new Status of Forces agreement that would have kept a larger US presence in Iraq for a longer time, but this is a decision that the sovereign government of Iraq has the right to make for itself. The United States is not an imperial power in the old style; when our allies ask us to leave, we go. The US left its bases in the Philippines when that government asked us to go; we are leaving Iraq at that government’s request.
This is an important step. Whatever we got wrong in Iraq, and we made plenty of mistakes, we never had any intention to rule or occupy the country indefinitely against the wishes of its people. Classic imperialist powers usually try to empower a minority that will depend on the foreign imperialists to consolidate their power; the US worked from the beginning to introduce majority rule in Iraq. Imperialist powers indulge in every kind of trick, fomenting coups, bribing journalists and politicians in order to stay indefinitely in a country they have entered. The US never planned to stay in Iraq if asked to leave by a government representing the majority of Iraqis.
We are leaving now; we haven’t locked the Iraqis into long term oil deals — which many US critics were convinced was the sole object of the invasion. (On the contrary, Chinese and other international firms have been the big winners in the reopening of Iraq’s oil industry.) We haven’t installed a weak, minority government that will permanently depend on us for security. We haven’t placed restrictions on Iraqi sovereignty or insisted on retaining bases.
As we leave Iraq, we have not, as many believed, lost our ability to work with the Arab world. On the contrary, first in Libya and then in Syria, the Arab League has worked more closely with the US than ever before. The Arab world shares our concerns about Iran; “Islamic” terrorism (though not Islamist politics) is in ideological retreat. European alliances that many thought were irretrievably broken are as strong or stronger than ever; France has joined Britain and is sometimes more hawkish than the US.
Our orderly withdrawal from Iraq and the obvious independence and full sovereignty of the Iraqi government will have their effect. The United States is not a colonial, imperialist power — even in Iraq.
The end of America’s large scale military presence, however, does not signal the end of American responsibility in Iraq. Our military ultimately did its job; the civilian sector has largely failed. First under Saddam and then during the war, two generations of Iraqi intellectuals and academics have grown up isolated. Iraqi civil society has been massacred and oppressed. Partly because the war made life dangerous, and partly because the war was so unpopular among American academic and philanthropic types, American civil society never really engaged with Iraq the way it should have.
Iraqi professors and exchange students should be all over the United States. Iraqi journalists and bloggers should be attending workshops and training sessions here. We should be much more involved in resettling Iraqi refugees. American businesses and chambers of commerce should be hosting Iraqis in training sessions and developing more business links. We should be doing much more to help Iraqis, especially those who aren’t rich, to learn English — the language of business and politics all over the world. Security conditions may not yet permit many Americans to travel and work in Iraq, but Iraqis can come here; public funds and private philanthropy need to do more. On the diplomatic front we should be working to increase European openness to Iraq as well; helping Iraqi intellectuals, artists, scholars and civil society participants share experiences with people from all parts of the world.
This is where President Obama can do more than President Bush. This administration can ask American civil society — universities, foundations, media organizations, community groups, business leaders — to work to develop deeper relations with postwar Iraq and get more of a response than President Bush ever could. President Obama opposed the Iraq war from the beginning; he now has the ability to do something more important than ending a war. He can make a peace.
Vice President Biden’s comments suggest that the Administration recognizes the need to do more. The United States should not be like Tom and Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, banging into peoples’ lives and barging heedlessly on, victims in their wake. Building ties between Americans and Iraqis, and helping our two societies understand one another better and learn from each other’s experience, will help bridge the gap between the US and the Middle East and lay a foundation for better times.