The Year Iraq Was Lost for Good

[Editor’s note: The title of and link to Fareed Zakaria’s Dec. 19, 2009, piece has been corrected.]

As their fellow Americans indulge in the New Year’s holiday, perhaps pausing a moment from talk about Tiger, football, and dead celebrities long enough to speculate about our prospects in Afghanistan, the last Marine combat unit stationed in Iraq is preparing to come home.

It doesn’t need to be said there will be no ticker-tape parades or long, hot-winded excursions by Tom Brokaw about today’s "Greatest Generation." Instead, these Marines will reenter our consciousness much like a husband, home from the office, walking into a cold house with no one about and maybe a scribbled note on the refrigerator door.

It’s been a long while since anyone has even debated whether "victory" was applicable to the U.S.-led invasion and subsequent seven-year occupation of Iraq. But 2009 was the year that the war’s sad fate in the history books was assured, no doubt leaving hundreds of thousands of American servicemen and women to feel as though their sacrifice, and that of their comrades, has been largely unfulfilled by anything remotely resembling "one of the great achievements of mankind."

No, in addition to what the Washington Post called "one of the most unpopular wars in American history," Iraq was all but officially declared a "non-victory" in the waning days of 2008 by none other than Gen. David Petraeus, now head of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), who could hardly be accused of bias against the American cause in Iraq and the Long War. His legacy depends on history looking favorably on his previous command of the Multi-National Forces in Iraq from January 2007 to September 2008. Rest assured that he is guarding it closely.

But while the debate tediously rolls on over whether the commander’s hot counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine, i.e., The Surge, advanced the U.S. mission in Iraq in 2008 or just stanched the bloodletting caused by the 2003 invasion, even Petraeus is savvy enough to put things into perspective, effectively setting the tone for 2009.

"This is not the sort of struggle where you take a hill, plant the flag, and go home to a victory parade … it’s not a war with a simple slogan," he told the BBC, in response to a question about using the word "victory," in September 2008, two months before Barack Obama won the presidency. Less than six months later, the ultimate goal in Iraq was as oblique as ever, but it was rapidly becoming past tense, as Petraeus & Co. turned to Afghanistan as the new COIN proving ground, with hardly a backward glance. Gen. Raymond Odierno, who took over as commander of the forces in Iraq, has even faded from view after a brief period of military celebrity, popping in only infrequently to make the latest declaration on whether we will stick to the 2011 withdrawal date.

Meanwhile, President Obama settled into the rigors of transition in early 2009 focused mostly on the imploding economy and his developing strategy for Afghanistan (which he had all but named "the good war" during the campaign). In April, when the president spoke to U.S. troops in Iraq on a "surprise" visit, it was clear Obama had pretty much announced this phase of the Long War was over, and he was careful not to declare "victory" by any definition we are familiar with.

“You have given Iraq the opportunity to stand on its own as a democratic country … that is an extraordinary achievement," Obama told the troops.

"It is time for us to transition to the Iraqis," he added. "They need to take responsibility for their country.”

It wasn’t exactly Truman’s proclamation of victory over the Japanese, but then again, the advancing document essentially "ending" the Iraq War wasn’t a "surrender" by the enemy, but a status of forces agreement (SOFA) signed in late 2008 by Obama’s predecessor and the Iraqi prime minister declaring that the U.S. will leave Iraq by 2011. That’s not the sort of high-caliber emotional stuff that sticks in your throat (bile doesn’t count).

So the only parades and parties we’ve seen so far broke out in June – in Iraq – when U.S. forces began leaving the cities:

From the New York Times, June 30:

"Iraq celebrated the withdrawal of American troops from its cities with parades, fireworks and a national holiday on Tuesday as the prime minister trumpeted the country’s sovereignty from American occupation to a wary public.

"Even with a deadly car bombing and other mayhem marring the day – the deadline for the American troop pullback under an agreement that took effect Jan. 1 – Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki seized on the occasion to position himself as a proud leader of a country independent at last, looking ahead to the next milestone of parliamentary elections in January."

Obama called the day a "milestone," an "important step" toward complete Iraqi independence. But it all had the feel of a slamming book. And, as exhibited in spontaneous remarks by Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morell less than two months later, it is not a book that ends on a high note, at least not under a chapter titled "Victory."

"Frankly, I don’t think anybody’s too preoccupied with declaring victory," said Morell in response to a reporter who asked whether troop withdrawal equaled a declaration of victory in Iraq. "I don’t think that was – necessarily something we’ll ever do."

Even if it is absolutely true, after 4,372 U.S. deaths (as of December) and nearly 90,000 casualties, not to mention almost $1 trillion (mostly for Iraq) in American resources, his stunningly evasive and unsatisfactory words only served to highlight the perversity of invading Iraq in the first place. And it had to be a bit of an outrage to the men and women who’ve left pieces of their bodies – and minds – behind in Iraq, or the families forever missing one at the table for the holidays, or even the unemployed assembly line worker who has to pay out-of-pocket for family insurance because it’s just too damn expensive for the federal government to ensure public health care.

But no one was really paying attention in 2009, anyway.

Comparing Iraq (not to mention Afghanistan) to Vietnam is the debate du jour, yet no one talks about the most obvious congruity: our troops today are drifting home from Iraq silently, largely unnoticed in small ripples and with nothing resembling a VJ day, or even an end, on the horizon. They aren’t leaving the kind of country behind they were told they were fighting for. The only difference is many of them will be cycling back to war, either as "advisers" or "support" to Iraqi security forces, or worse, off to Afghanistan for another nebulous occupation and a victory-neutral outcome.

This overriding ethos of the nugatory state of things is alive and well in Washington for sure, helped along by media elites such as Newsweek‘s Fareed Zakaria. He is an expert at getting noticed for saying nothing particularly profound, and he has blown through a lot of ink making Iraq a "could be," "should be," "maybe if," "on the other hand" kind of war. He, too, will never declare victory or defeat, but he creates a lot of obfuscations to get around saying outright that Iraq is finished.

This June headline with subhead is typical: "Victory in Iraq: How we got here is a matter for history. But the democratic ideal is still within reach." What does that even mean? Zakaria went on to recall in shopworn fashion the myriad mistakes of the Bush administration (not the 2003 invasion itself mind you, but the disbanding of the Ba’athist army, shutting down the state-run institutions, etc.), noting that a vast majority of the refugees haven’t returned, that the Sunnis are still disenfranchised, there’s trouble with the autonomous Kurds, and Iraq, overall, "remains a troubled country." All true in June, and still true. But he held out hope:

"All that is left to redeem the mission is the hope of a decent outcome – a democratic Iraq that represents a new model of Arab politics, one that does not force its citizens to choose between a repressive regime and an extreme opposition. …

"This was not Barack Obama’s war. But it might well turn out to be his greatest legacy to the Arab world."

Absolutely gratuitous and empty, especially as every impulse of this administration over the last year, aided by Zakaria’s Washington friends, has been to wave Iraq good-bye in the rearview mirror.

Zakaria seems to acknowledge that, but he gives it one more try in his recent "Don’t Forget America’s Other War." In his signature fashion, he calls The Surge "a military success" but won’t commit to why, or whether it really matters. The ethnic and sectarian issues plaguing the country are "still unsettled." It’s dangerous, and the refugees still aren’t coming home. And yet, the "press is free" (not!); Sunni, Shia, and Kurd are negotiating their differences "peacefully" (really?); and the nation is becoming more pluralistic and democratic (are you sure?).

Zakaria still surmises that the Americans are in the best position to fix what’s broke, even though he recognizes in almost every one of his vacillating foreign policy briefs that the U.S. is responsible for the lion’s share of fatal errors, blunders, and misjudgments.

"Iraq needs a stable power-sharing deal that keeps all three groups invested in the new country. To make this happen, all three will need to compromise. And the central positive force in all of this can be the United States. … The costs of the Iraq war have been great and perhaps indefensible. But Iraq could still turn out to be an extraordinary model for the Arab world. … The Obama administration has a window of opportunity to cement these gains in 2010."

In the immortal words of Ebenezer Scrooge, "humbug still."

Zakaria’s argument is specious, since there seems to be no real commitment from the administration or Congress to turn Iraq into anything more than a gracious exit.

Looking back, it seems 2009 merely served as a necessary intermediary, providing for us the mental catwalk between the raw wounds of Fallujah, Samarra, Abu Ghraib, and The Surge and today’s quiet and sober, if not melancholy, resignation that the "mission" will never truly be achieved.

The military establishment, led by career officers and big brass like Petraeus (who looks more than ever as though he is going to fall over from the weight of the medals pinned to his breast), has eagerly – mentally and physically – moved on to Afghanistan, having already bullied the new president into expanding operations there in 2010.

But it is the enlisted men and women and the American public – those of us who still give a damn – who will acutely and viscerally recall 2009 as the year Iraq was truly lost.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.