As David Letterman pointed out, we might tell the last American troops leaving Iraq this month to turn out the lights, but that isn’t necessary since there’s no electricity.
Today, President Obama meets Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to ceremonially mark the end of the war. After eight and half years, the United States is leaving behind a nation and a society that has been utterly devastated by the misguided and illegal war. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are dead, and an entire generation of children is scarred and traumatized. Iraq’s infrastructure and its industry were destroyed. And in place of Saddam Hussein is Maliki, a religious Shiite fundamentalist with close ties to Iran who is fast building an authoritarian regime.
But that’s not good enough for neoconservatives and many Republicans, who want to expand and continue the war and the American presence.
As the Washington Post reported over the weekend, Iraqis don’t exactly have fond feelings for the United States. The legacy of sectarian and ethnic massacres and mass killings by US forces lingers. The Post’s article, “Civilian killings created insurmountable hurdle to extended U.S. troop presence in Iraq,” highlighted the horrific massacre at Haditha, where US Marines shot and killed nineteen civilians, including ten women and children, in a frenzy of savagery. Reports the Post:
On those facts, U.S. and Iraqi accounts agree. On just about everything else—why it happened, whether it was justified and how it was resolved—they do not.
And in those dueling perceptions, over the killings in Haditha and others nationwide, lay the undoing of the U.S. military’s hopes of maintaining a long-term presence here. When it came to deciding the future of American troops in Iraq, the irreconcilable difference that stood in the way of an agreement was a demand by Iraqi politicians for an end to the grant of immunity that has protected on-duty U.S. soldiers from Iraqi courts.
In the Christian Science Monitor, describing the experiences of the Khafaji family, Scott Peterson reminds us of the almost unimaginable losses suffered by Iraqis, many of whom blame the United States for their trauma even if some of the deaths were caused by Iraqis, including the resistance:
Iraq’s fragile social fabric has been shredded by the kinds of bombings, killings, torture, and upheavals that afflicted so many like the Khafaji family—whether at the hands of Sunni extremists like Al Qaeda, Shiite militias, or US and Iraqi forces. While the US lost more than 4,500 soldiers—and spent nearly $1 trillion—the human toll on the Iraqi side is virtually unquantifiable and unimaginable, with estimates of the number of people who perished in the years of insurgency and sectarian civil war reaching into the hundreds of thousands.
Fred and Kim Kagan, in a Post op-ed, point out correctly that Maliki is aggrandizing power, rounding up Sunnis and supposed Baathists willy-nilly, while refusing to relinquish his hold on the defense and interior ministries. But they overstep by criticizing the Obama administration for not taking stronger action to try to shape Iraqi politics and security affairs to American liking:
Obama administration policy presumes that Maliki generally shares U.S. interests and will pursue them even without significant American assistance. Were that true, Maliki would aggressively protect American civilian and diplomatic personnel who have been threatened by the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and recently targeted to such a degree that the embassy has restricted their travel. He would direct security forces to act against Iranian-sponsored militias in Iraq. Rather than abstaining, he would have supported the Arab League’s vote to suspend Syrian membership. He would see to it that Ali Mussa Daqduq, the Lebanese Hezbollah operative responsible for the execution of American soldiers in Karbala in 2007, is transferred to U.S. custody or tried in Iraq and punished for his crimes. He would appoint a permanent minister of defense and an interior minister acceptable to Parliament rather than concentrating those powers in his office.
Fact is, Maliki runs Iraq, not the United States. He’s there because the United States catapulted him and a bunch of other exiles, many linked to Iran, into power after 2003. There’s little or nothing that the United States can or should do to insert itself into Iraqi politics now. With luck, Iraqi nationalism will reassert itself vis-à-vis Iran, and Iraq will likely rely in the future on cash and investments and technology from Western countries and the Arab nations of the gulf. But if not, and if Iran begins to transform Iraq into a client state and ally, so be it.
The case of Daqduq is especially troubling, since many neocons and Republicans want Obama to sneak him out of the country and put him in Guantánamo, even though doing so would be illegal and a blatant violation of Iraq’s national sovereignty. But as the Times notes, it’s all political:
Republicans, however, are seeking to frame the withdrawal in different terms: that Mr. Obama endangered national security by pulling out of Iraq too soon, and that he should have persuaded the Iraqis to allow United States troops to stay beyond the deadline agreed to by the Bush administration three years ago. Elevating the profile of Mr. Daqduq and highlighting any unsatisfactory outcome to his case could bolster such efforts to cast Mr. Obama’s Iraq record in a negative light.
It’s time to celebrate the end of the war in Iraq, which did not go well. And to remind President Obama that it’s time to end the war in Afghanistan, too.