A sense of relief and respect is due as the last group of American combat troops has withdrawn from Iraq. Partly because their silent and unannounced crossing safely into Kuwait in predawn darkness successfully avoided even a skirmish. More so because the long war at last has ended. The American troops, aided by those of other NATO nations, did their duty and are properly honored for it.
But the almost nine-year war was started with the dubious and unsupported assertion that the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, had begun again to build nuclear weapons and was close to completing a few. Vice President Dick Cheney pushed that belief, with the help of a half dozen other “neoconservatives” who had long advocated military action to take out Saddam Hussein.
Mr. Cheney had persuaded President George W. Bush to nominate Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense. Mr. Cheney also worked to bring the other war hawks into the new administration. Secretary of State Colin Powell, the popular four-star general who had headed the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Gulf War, presented the case for war to the United Nations. The group persuaded the president to order the invasion, against his earlier denunciation of “nation building.” Reporting by the New York Times, since disavowed, backed the case for war. Much of the public, still traumatized by the 2001 terrorist attacks, accepted the case. The “evidence” for Saddam’s nuclear preparations was afterward found to be nonexistent.
The president, in effect, was finishing a job left undone by his father, President George H.W. Bush in the Gulf War.
The enormous costs of the war will burden America for decades: More than 4,500 American troop deaths, more than 32,000 wounded with 20 percent suffering serious brain or spinal injuries, 30 percent of the troops developing serious mental health problems within months of returning home. The country must not shirk its duty to all the wounded warriors. It also must develop plans to usher them back into employment.
And the financial cost — over $1 trillion, by most accounts — helped swell the deficit that has cast a pall over new government initiatives; this is especially troubling as the economy slowly recovers, and further government spending is necessary.
President Obama, who as an Illinois state senator had opposed war against Iraq as a “dumb war,” wrote in 2007 that the Iraq invasion was a war “that never should have been authorized and never should have been waged.” He called for withdrawal of U.S. combat forces by March 31, 2008. Military operations continued but the U.S. withdrawal was scheduled for completion by Dec. 31, 2011 in a November 2008 agreement between the United States and Iraq.
The controversial “surge” approach, which committed more troops and resources, and which was initially opposed by Mr. Obama, helped turn the tide in Iraq. So did the so-called Sunni Awakening, a change of heart by that sect.
But violence remains, as seen in recent days. Iraqis must walk the long, and sometimes bloody trail, toward an inclusive democracy and finally understand that shared prosperity for all is security for all.
So the long war is over, and its lesson is clear: Although wars of defense can be essential, making “contingency” or “preventive” war against a hostile or offensive nation is most likely to lead to a long, deadly, expensive and ultimately inconclusive conflict. That is what has happened with the U.S. effort in Iraq. It has happened before, and we should know better to not let it happen again.
Some Americans want such a war with Iran or North Korea. They are wrong and should be disregarded.