It is tempting to think of Winston Churchill’s famous words at the Lord Mayor’s luncheon in November 1942 as we approach the end of August and the withdrawal of U.S. forces in Iraq down to 50,000 troops.
“Now, this is not the end,” Churchill warned, citing recent defeat of Rommel’s forces at El Alamein in North Africa. “It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
“The end of the beginning” may be the best President Barack Obama can hope for. Short of an unexpected turn of events, Iraq’s nightmare will continue, probably get worse. And while all U.S. forces are to be withdrawn from Iraq by the end of 2011, signs grow that such a total withdrawal may be unrealistic.
Despite the success of the surge in 2008, sectarian tensions remain high, and are increasing. Twenty to 30 Iraqis are killed in car bombings and shootings daily (48 young Army recruits Tuesday). Political deadlock on a new government persists, five months after March’s elections.
Iraq’s military chief said recently that his army will not be prepared to defend the country until 2020 — a plea for U.S. forces to remain past December 2011.
Increasingly, it seems likely that U.S. troops in some numbers will be needed if only to protect the U.S. embassy, train Iraqi forces and conduct counterterrorism operations.
Tom Ricks, author of two outstanding books, “Fiasco” and “The Gamble,” doesn’t even see the “end of the beginning.” On NPR, Ricks predicted that the war in Afghanistan may turn out better than the war in Iraq.
The 2003 invasion, he said “unleashed a chain of events that will be playing out over many years, if not many decades. None of the basic questions are being solved, including formation of a government and sharing of oil revenues. The only thing changing in Iraq is Uncle Sam is trying to get out.”
It was eight long years ago this month that Vice President Dick Cheney made it clear that he and President George W. Bush were determined to go to war in Iraq despite tenuous evidence of weapons of mass destruction or links to terrorism and against the advice of Bush’s father’s own top advisers, James Baker and Brent Scowcroft.
In a sign of the bizarre polarization rampant today, many neocons ignore the broader strategic consequences and trumpet “victory” in Iraq. One true believer even wrote of two victories: Saddam Hussein’s downfall and the surge.
Tell that to the Iraqis. Violence did decrease significantly during a year of the surge. Yet more than 24,000 Iraqis were killed — a 911 tragedy almost every month. While U.S. casualties declined sharply, 1,124 American soldiers lost their lives in that period.
As for Saddam Hussein, his departure amounts to a tactical achievement that must be measured against the many setbacks that add up to a colossal strategic blunder. Beyond the loss of 4,400 American lives in an unnecessary war.
The ultimate test of the war’s value is what the last eight years have done to the power, prestige and economic condition of the United States.
Was it in our national interest to go to war in Iraq in March 2003?
Other than enhancement of U.S. military capabilities (likely anyway if the focus stayed on Afghanistan), removal of an aging dictator and limited tremors of democratic life, there is little to show. Set those gains against these unequivocal, undeniable costs:
Grave damage to the position of the United States: As several observers say, “we are neither feared nor respected” in the Middle East today.
Turning away from Afghanistan after initial defeat of the Taliban.
Not pursuing al-Qaida’s leaders when they were right there at Tora Bora.
Increasing terrorism (check the 2006 National Intelligence Council report saying Iraq war spawned far worse terrorism).
Emboldening Iran — the real nuclear weapons threat in the region.
A trillion dollars — certainly a factor in the economic meltdown.
And, the terrible overstretch and tie-down of U.S. forces in the cities of Iraq and mountains of Afghanistan.
“Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that everyone who embarks on that strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter,” Churchill said in another famous speech, discussing World War I on June 18, 1940. “The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrolled events.”
Fred Hill of Arrowsic was a foreign correspondent for The Baltimore Sun and worked on national security issues for the State Department. He can be reached at email@example.com.