The Twenty Years' War is (almost) over
Victory was in the air, and it seemed the appropriate thing to do.
George W. Bush, perhaps nostalgic for the service he'd abandoned in 1971, wore a military pilot's uniform as he stepped out of a fighter plane onto the deck of an aircraft carrier. The ship was full of troops returning to California after they'd defeated the Iraqi army in only six weeks of fighting.
The ship had nearly reached the coast after a week at sea, but it was taken back out into the ocean and turned around to create a more dramatic effect for TV. Bush stepped up to a podium and announced: "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended."
It was May 2, 2003, and what Bush meant — that the invasion was over and the occupation had begun — was correct. But his critics faulted him for implying something that wouldn't happen for another seven years.
Last night was the official deadline for the removal of combat troops as agreed upon by the U.S. and Iraq. In an 18-minute speech from the Oval Office, Barack Obama paraphrased Bush by saying, "Tonight, I am announcing that the American combat mission in Iraq has ended. Operation Iraqi Freedom is over, and the Iraqi people now have lead responsibility for the security of their country."
Obama acknowledged indirectly the violent attacks in 13 cities just days after the last U.S. brigade left on August 18, but said: "Even as Iraq continues to suffer terrorist attacks, security incidents have been near the lowest on record since the war began."
The next deadline, at the end of 2011, will see the removal of the remaining 50,000 U.S. troops — left behind to continue training the Iraqi army.
"The United States has paid a huge price to put the future of Iraq in the hands of its people," Obama said. The question that's being asked at this stage is: "Was it all worth it?" Was it worth 4,417 U.S. lives, 32,000 maimed U.S. soldiers, $3 trillion and the loss of American prestige abroad to get rid of three nasty individuals — Saddam, Uday and Qusay — and regain access to lots and lots of oil?
Bret Stephens, deputy editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal, takes the long view, back to the first Gulf War. He says the Iraq War, 1991-2011, ought to be called the Twenty Years' War.
"It matters what we call our wars," writes Stephens, "lest we fail to understand them — and lest we repeat them, because we failed to understand."
Stephens points out that the 1990s were spent trying to contain Saddam Hussein through sanctions, no-fly zones and occasional air strikes. The author faults the senior George Bush for not anticipating this, when he could have occupied the whole country in 1991.
Patrolling the no-fly zones was costing the United States $1 billion a year and — just before 2001 — $1 billion a month. Iraqis were deprived of commerce and even enough to eat. Obviously this was not a good solution. But neither was destroying the whole country, then trying to rebuild it. An entire generation has now grown up without experience of civilized society.
Iraqis have been voting, but their country still has no functioning government. The U.S. has spent $22 billion to train 675,000 security officers — including 300,000 local police officers — but 300 Iraqis still get killed, on average, by bombs every month. But, hey! They have internet cafés now (when they have electricity).
One and a half million Iraqis are displaced within Iraq. Two million others have left the country. And between 100,000 and one million are dead.
The lesson is perhaps that modern wars really can last 20 years and that we should look before we leap.