On June 30, 2004, the United States formally ended military rule and recognized Iraq as a sovereign nation. On Sunday, Iraq actually became sovereign as the last U.S. troops departed.
The war might be over, but America won’t be finished with Iraq for a long, long time. The heavy price we’ve paid in suffering and expense must never be forgotten, along with the many lessons we hope American military and political leaders have learned about how not to fight a war.
We have devoted lots of space to analyzing the decision to invade in 2003 and how to cope with its aftermath. The issue today isn’t what should have been, but rather the cold, hard reality of what Iraq actually is: a fragile country still on the brink of implosion.
Americans should worry anew every time a big bomb explodes or a major faction of Iraq’s parliament walks out and brings the government to a standstill.
A crucial difference today is that the blame game now shifts to a list of players that no longer includes the United States at the top. For U.S. politicians, it means finding some other target to accuse when something isn’t going right over there.
Iraq was probably never going to reach a level of stability that hard-liners would find acceptable enough to justify the pullout. But the fact is, Iraq wanted all foreign troops out by Dec. 31, and Washington had no choice but to honor Baghdad’s wishes. Besides, the taxpayer expense and risk to U.S. troops simply did not justify the benefits of remaining.
For better or worse, Saddam Hussein’s ouster served notice around the region that the day of the dictator is over. Yes, democracy is proving to be very messy, but it is forcing Arab governments to become fully accountable to their people.
For the Arab world, the U.S. withdrawal means no more finger-pointing about all of the real and imagined damage the Americans were causing to regional stability. Now the fingers are pointing inward. The same dictators who once used the U.S. occupation to distract Arabs from their own domestic woes now find themselves ousted from power or using the harshest imaginable tactics to remain en trenched — just like Saddam.
For years to come, Iraqis will debate whether they’re truly better off. Their energies would be far better spent addressing the biggest threats that confronted their nation before the invasion and still plague them today: sectarianism, corruption and an insane belief that violence can fix Iraq’s ills.
America appears to have learned its lesson, as evidenced by the far smarter way it pursues its enemies today. Iraq is far from being problem-free, but at least it’s free. Let’s hope that’s not the problem.
Dallas Morning News (Dec. 20)