When President Obama announced last week that all American troops would leave Iraq by the end of the year, we were surely all thinking the same thing: what, no flight suit?
Leaving aside the distinct lack of a “Mission Accomplished” banner and the fact that newscasters (and the American public) seem more surprised to find the president actually keeping one of his campaign promises instead of breaking it, there isn’t much to celebrate.
We’ve been at war for seven years in Iraq. It was a war that intruded on our lives only in brief photographic flashes: toppled statues, handover of this or that power or responsibility, flag-draped coffins, the surge, prisoners sporting hoods and electrodes, names of the dead in the newspaper. The soundbites were catchy enough: shock and awe, hearts and minds, weapons of mass destruction, coalition of the willing, “You go to war with the army you have.” This was the war for which we pleaded with the U.N. and coaxed our allies. This was not the war anyone imagined.
When Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, he defended the use of military intervention, saying, “The instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace.” There is probably not much else to say when you are accepting the award as the overseer of two wars, a fact he himself acknowledged. The political calculus of our actions in Iraq is not much fun to untangle when it comes to peace in the region, and hindsight seems to compound and confirm worst-case conclusions. The removal of a dictator who attacked his neighbors and terrorized his people in exchange for ongoing violence and instability within the country is not much of a trade.
Is Iraq our generation’s Vietnam? There are similarities: bad ideas, poor execution, a sinkhole of blood and money. But it is a war removed from our daily lives that has never held the same significance for us. No one was drafting us—or our friends or family—to fight. We (mostly) didn’t march in the streets or on campus demanding answers. And now, seven years later, the war is over, and we hardly had to do anything. Maybe we really will be out by the end of the year, but we’re fooling ourselves if we think we can wash our hands of it at last. Iraq is much more like the Hotel California than the beaches of Normandy; we may be checking out now, but just because the troops are leaving doesn’t mean we ever will. “You break it, you buy it” doesn’t always apply to military intervention (though then-Secretary of State Colin Powell used the same analogy when advising President Bush in the summer of 2002). You could argue that because of all the ways we have failed in Iraq, the one thing we have left after all of this is an obligation to stay involved to work for a better future. Even if you disagree, we will have to live with the Iraq war and its consequences for the rest of our lives, perhaps in a way that will affect us more than it ever did when we were fighting for ground or chasing down Saddam. This is how we started the twenty-first century.