George W. Bush took a beating after landing on an aircraft carrier and speaking under a banner that read “Mission Accomplished” two months after major combat operations in Iraq had ended in May 2003. The Bush administration expected the event to be an opportunity for the president to bask in the glory of victory. His advisers may have been thinking of the goodwill with which Congress bathed the president’s father, George H.W. Bush, after Iraqi forces were routed out of Kuwait in 1991. Instead, the “mission accomplished” moment took on a bitter irony, as the war dragged on and no weapons of mass destruction were found.
This week, the last U.S. combat troops left Iraq, just ahead of President Barack Obama’s Aug. 31 departure date. Though 50,000 troops will remain until next summer, in some ways, the mission is now truly over. Seven years and five months after the invasion, what has been accomplished?
The Bush administration undertook the invasion for reasons other than suspicions about WMD or Saddam Hussein made-up ties to the 9/11 terrorists. Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, Defense Secretary Assistant Richard Perle and others saw the invasion of Iraq within the context of the “global war on terror.” That phrase, with its peculiar internal logic, underscored their argument that the response to the 9/11 attacks could lead to military action anywhere, anytime, pre-emptive or provoked.
The reasons the administration gave for toppling Saddam Hussein kept changing. But essentially, the goals were to show the Arab Middle East that the United States was willing to put “boots on the ground” to disrupt terrorism and to spread a vaguely defined “freedom,” and that the American people were willing to accept thousands of body bags coming home. That much was accomplished. The Bush administration also wanted to show the world that the U.S. had the stamina to occupy a country long enough to support a regime change. With the phrase, “bringing democracy to the Middle East,” came an unspoken threat — wise up, or your country could be the next to be democratized.
These goals were not as absurdly misguided as Mr. Bush’s critics have asserted. The biggest threat to U.S. security — both before and after 9/11 — can be linked to certain Middle Eastern countries, or certain groups within those countries. By toppling a ruthless dictatorship there — a convenient target — the U.S. might have increased its leverage over some nations in the region, empowered the more moderate elements of others and created an ally in a very strategic location. This worked for a short while.
But the Bush administration’s goals and the reality of the Middle East parted ways, as could have been seen before 2003 and certainly has been seen since. Democracy, the evidence shows, is not an easy fit in that region. Forcing it on a people before they are willing to embrace it in all its messiness — and without the institutions needed to sustain it — is risky business. And the loss of a strong government — albeit one run by a cutthroat, vindictive dictator — allowed deep, ancient sectarian divides to re-emerge and spur seemingly never-ending violence, violence that the U.S.-trained and equipped Iraqi military and police force is far from able to stop.
Though there are U.S. troops in other vanquished nations — 57,000 in Germany and 32,000 in Japan — and hot spots — 27,000 in South Korea and 10,000 in Kuwait — those remaining in Iraq are at far greater risk.
A parliamentary representative government may take root and grow in Iraq, and the U.S. will be able to use its paternal relationship with the country to some strategic ends in coming years. But at such a cost — 4,400 U.S. lives, at least 100,000 Iraqi lives and $742 billion in U.S. funds to date. As with Vietnam, Americans will continue to debate this war of choice for years. Though there may not be an image as futilely tragic as the last U.S. helicopter leaving the embassy in Saigon from this conflict, keeping the peace in Iraq will be a deadly undertaking.
The next time a president wants to take the nation to war, this moment — and the reflections that it inspires — ought to be recalled.