Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta addressed a small gathering of marines, standing in front of a wall that looked as though it had been removed from the South Bronx. A five-piece band played. The colors were taken down and folded up. Panetta told the troops they were leaving with honor, their mission accomplished.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani had been invited to the ceremony, but neither of them appeared, nor did any other functionary. A few miles away, Iraqis celebrated the formal U.S. departure from their country by burning American flags.
President Obama, trying to put the best face on this ignominy, talked of fulfilling a campaign pledge. Actually, American troops were leaving because the Maliki government had refused to negotiate an agreement that would have exempted them from prosecution under Iraqi law. In the good old days, such immunity was known as “extraterritoriality,” and it was a mark of imperial occupation. The new Iraq was having none of that.
There will be residual forces in Iraq as trainers and advisers, but these will be private contractors and black-ops types. We are not leaving behind any potential hostages we cannot disavow if necessary. There will also be security for the mega-sized embassy — the world’s largest — we leave behind in Baghdad’s Green Zone. In addition, the U.S. retains a consulate of 1,320 people, which will remain in the port of Basra; a staging base should we ever return; and a tripwire for future hostilities with Iran. In short, the American occupation of Iraq is not over. As long as that is the case, we cannot say the war is over, either.
Wars used to end. The doughboys all came home from World War I. With Germany and Japan at the end of World War II, however, America began a tradition of permanent military occupation. It was continued in Korea. Defeat in Vietnam was sealed by the evacuation of the American embassy in Saigon in 1975, together with the last remaining troops, spooks and security personnel. It was the most humbling moment in modern American history, and one that two young staffers in the Ford administration, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, swore they’d never live to see repeated.
We’ve lost in Iraq, deservedly so of course, but we’re trying to fly under the radar there just the same. It won’t wash, and it simply reserves a final, humiliating chapter for later. But we’re stuck with that enormous embassy, and what do we do with it? Leave it to be looted, like one of Saddam’s palaces? Give the keys to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and turn it over to Iran?
Losing a war is painful. Leaving it can be far from easy.
Make no mistake — our defeat in Iraq has been the biggest in American history. We suffered (and inflicted) far more casualties in Vietnam, but our defeat there did not affect the long-term geopolitical equation of the Cold War or even the local balance of power in Asia. It will be otherwise with Iraq. We have taken a formerly reliable, albeit despotic, ally and made of it a satellite of our prime enemy in the region, theocratic Iran. This is not a choice the Iraqis get to make or unmake. By replacing Sunni with Shiite rule in Iraq, we have left the country’s new masters both materially and ideologically dependent on Shiite Iran. Iranian influence in the country is already plain to see. The relationship may not prove altogether smooth, but it is inevitable. And that makes Iran the hegemonic power in the Middle East — an outcome that effectively negates a 30-year American policy to contain it.
The consequences of this reversal may be dire. Iran will be emboldened to pursue its nuclear program, and Israel will correspondingly be determined to halt it. Already, a cat-and-mouse game of sabotage is going on between the two countries, one that America’s defeat in Iraq will make far less controlled. At the same time, the Iranian oil spigot has just gotten much larger, and the world economy is now far more vulnerable to it. To be sure, American corporations are still hoping to exploit Iraq’s huge oil reserve. But politics will control that, and Uncle Sam no longer calls the shots.
The costs of the war to America can be summarized under three headings: economic, political and moral. The funding of the war — its short-term costs in the neighborhood of a trillion dollars and its long-term ones in excess of three trillion — will be a drain on the nation for decades to come. This debt now restricts our ability to deal with the current depression. Politically, Congress has ceded more of its constitutional authority to declare wars, of which only a shadow remains. As in the absolutist monarchies of Old Regime Europe, the executive now exercises control over declaring war. This is incompatible with democracy and, especially with a volunteer army, the greatest threat we have ever faced to the balance of power.
The moral cost is the greatest. We have attacked other countries gratuitously before — Mexico, Spain — but, in the wake of Hitler’s aggression in World War II, we took the lead internationally in proscribing such wars. It seems we now apply a different standard to ourselves. We cannot, however, evade the fact that by attacking a helpless and nonbelligerent Iraq, we placed ourselves in Hitler’s company. There may be no forum that can call us out for this, but the penalties, large and small, will surely come due.
The Iraq war has ended, not with a bang but with a whimper. The only country that’s celebrating is Iran, where we have handed the ayatollahs their biggest victory in 30 years and handed ourselves a moral and strategic debacle.
Robert Zaller is a professor of history. He can be reached at email@example.com.