World Politics Review | 12.20.11
By Alan W. Dowd

The Iraq War began with “shock and awe.” It ended with quiet dignity, with battle flags coming down from their standards, with a free but fragile Iraq walking into the unknown and a bloodied but unbowed U.S. military saluting its commander-in-chief and marching home. Much about America’s war in Iraq was remarkable: the rapid collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the surprising absence of WMDs, the unexpectedly high economic and human costs, the patience of the American people -- eight years is a long war for this nation’s short attention span -- the ferocity of the postwar occupation, the sacrifice and tenacity of America’s armed forces, the Baghdad surge that saved America from defeat and Iraq from spiraling into civil war. But of all these, perhaps the most remarkable is the way America said goodbye. It was poignant and poised, peaceful and purposeful.

The debates over whether President George W. Bush should have launched the war and over how President Barack Obama ended it will go on for many years. Perhaps someday a consensus will emerge, but perhaps not. It pays to recall that 36 years after the fall of Saigon, Americans are still debating the war in Vietnam.

Suffice it to say that Bush, after receiving approval from the Senate (77-23) and the House (296-133), ordered U.S. forces to take down Saddam Hussein’s regime largely because Sept. 11 changed the very DNA of U.S. national-security policy. In his book, “Surprise, Security and the American Experience,” historian John Lewis Gaddis concludes, “Any administration in such a crisis would have had to rethink what it thought it knew about security and hence strategy.” Was deterrence any longer possible? Was containment viable? Was giving repeat offenders like Saddam the benefit of the doubt responsible?

One by one, the Bush administration -- backed by large, bipartisan majorities in Congress -- decided that the answer to each of those questions was “no,” which is why Sept. 11 led first to Afghanistan and then to Iraq. Though the Iraqi dictator did not plan or hatch the terrorist attacks, Sept. 11 taught Washington a lesson about the danger of failing to confront threats before they are fully formed. In the same manner, the appeasement of Adolf Hitler at Munich at once had nothing and yet everything to do with how Washington responded to Joseph Stalin and his Soviet successors during the Cold War.

As for Obama’s decision to let Iraq now stand or fall on its own, without any direct U.S. military support, we cannot forget that America has sacrificed eight years and nine months, 4,484 lives and $850 billion for Iraq. That is a huge human toll, an enormous sum of money and a healthy chunk of time for Iraqis to sort out a workable postwar, post-Saddam order. Doubtless, Obama has considered these costs, especially in light of the fact that he never supported the war in Iraq. Indeed, the centerpiece of Obama’s foreign policy platform as a candidate -- indeed the very fuel for his White House run -- was always the withdrawal from Iraq. If nothing else, his critics should give him credit for keeping his word.

Even so, the history of an Iraq without direct U.S. support and guidance is yet unwritten. Although the December 2011 deadline was in place going back to the Bush era, most observers thought a modest-sized residual force of U.S. troops would remain in Iraq well past that date. Indeed, Obama’s decision this past fall to scrap plans for such a force came abruptly and unexpectedly. American and Iraqi military commanders, as well as State Department officials, had counted on a force of perhaps 20,000 to help provide security and training. As Frederick Kagan, one of the architects of the surge, explained, “Painstaking staff work in Iraq led Gen. Lloyd Austin to recommend trying to keep more than 20,000 troops in Iraq after the end of 2011.” The troops would not be there to fight, but rather to deter flare-ups, train Iraq’s nascent army and secure key facilities. But Obama, no doubt with an eye on the U.S. political calendar but also tired of Baghdad’s foot-dragging, offered a residual force of just 3,000 troops. When Baghdad balked, as Kagan reports, “The White House then dropped the matter entirely and decided instead to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of this year, despite the fact that no military commander supported the notion that such a course of action could secure U.S. interests.”

In other words, just as it was a gamble for Bush to launch first the war and then the surge, it is a gamble for Obama to pull virtually all American troops out of Iraq. The ”X factor” is this: Have Iraq’s sectarian forces, foreign jihadists and Iranian-supported militias just been laying low and waiting for this moment? Or have they been subdued -- or at least sufficiently weakened to the point that Iraq’s army can handle them?

If the answer to that question is the latter, Obama’s gamble will pay off. If the former, Obama could be forced to revisit this decision -- and Iraq could face yet another disaster.