At first glance, President Obama’s speech on Iraq was heartening. While he did not credit his predecessor or election opponent for implementing and championing the surge that saved the war effort, the strategy he vehemently opposed as a candidate, Obama praised the success of our soldiers and Marines in some of his most appreciative and admiring language yet — and that’s enough. He called Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. Raymond Odierno “two of our finest generals,” and to be sure, they most certainly are. Though belatedly, he also recognized the bravery of everyday Iraqis who have fought against dictatorship and struggled to establish self-rule and consensual governance for years.
All this and more is good. It is high time for a deep national exhale on Iraq: through all the years of carnage and uncertainty, our military stuck it out and now might just end up leaving behind something once considered miraculous. But we should not get ahead of ourselves — and I fear some of President Obama’s statements point in that direction.
It is a good thing that the war, as we once knew it, is wrapping up. But Mr. Obama’s nomenclature is unsettling. “Today, I have come to speak to you about how the war in Iraq will end,” the new commander-in-chief told Marines soon to be deployed to Afghanistan. “Let me just say this as plainly as I can: By August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end,” he concluded.
This smacks of President Bush’s similar mistake, declaring an end to “major combat operations” on May 1, 2003. In Bush’s case, an inaccurate assessment was made of what was happening at the time. In Obama’s case, he is predicting what will happen 18 months from now.
If there is one lesson President Obama can learn from his predecessor, it is this: we do not have the final say on when this war will “end,” in the sense that we want it to end. If you recall, the earliest and most principled advocates of destroying Saddam’s regime — Rumsfeld, Perle, Wolfowitz, Feith, Bolton, etc. — all opposed a long-term occupation of Iraq, contrary to conventional wisdom and pop-culture caricature.
They felt, correctly I believe, that sending Paul Bremer to govern Iraq would be counterproductive. If it had been up to them alone, the transition to Iraqi sovereignty and self-policing would have happened much earlier. If it had been up to all of us, the war would have “ended” six years ago — sometime in the days or weeks following the toppling of Hussein’s statue in Baghdad’s Firdos Square. If we had our way, April 2003 would have been the last time an American fired his weapon in Iraq. We might have our preferences, but that does not always translate into concrete reality.
To put it more colloquially, Mr. Obama, the bad guys have a say in when the war will be over. They decided it would not be over in 2003 or ’04, ’05, ’06, ’07, or ’08, and thus compelled us to stay in Iraq to fight on. In a perfect world, our military would not have had to secure Iraqi real estate. We would not have had to undertake nation-building efforts of this magnitude. We could have “brought the boys home” in late 2003, as was initially planned (according to General Tommy Franks).
Alas, the Iranian mullahs, the Syrian Ba’athists, and the Salafi al-Qaedists might not think the stroke of midnight on August 31, 2010, is the end of their war on us, or the end of their war on a free and sovereign Iraq.
Six years ago, during the initial invasion of Iraq, Lt. Gen. Petraeus posed a challenge to a reporter traveling with his 101st Airborne Division, in what would become a famous quote: “Tell me how this ends.” Five years later, as the leading commander in Iraq, Petraeus seemed to answer his own question during an interview with NBC: “We think we won’t know that we’ve reached a turning point until we’re six months past it.”
That is the correct, professional, and responsible view to hold, the most objectively accurate lens through which we must observe the war. The inherent nature of asymmetrical war is horizontal, not vertical. There will be no definitive date, no specific event, and no single declaration that will end this war. The simple nature of the enemy forces this unpleasant and unconventional reality on us.
Iraq is largely pacified today and the war on the wane, because the surge brigades and battalions secured Iraqi territory, the Anbari tribes flipped against al-Qaeda, cities and provinces were cleared of insurrectionists, Iranian proxies were targeted and defeated in the south, and political reconciliation amongst Iraqi constituencies picked up steam. The dual insurgency from al-Qaeda and Tehran has been quelled because of our counterinsurgency, because we crushed our adversaries and worked with our Iraqi allies — not because we merely wanted the war to end, even though we did; not because we declared the war over, because we didn’t; and certainly not because the jihadists wanted the war to end, because they did not, and currently do not want it to end.
Mr. Obama, certain people had to be defeated to get where we are today. As you acknowledge, many of these people will still be around 18 months from now. As with the ebb and flow of all wars, particularly insurgencies, these people — theocrats and fascists and neck-slicers of the worst kind — might not consider themselves defeated in 2010. The “Iraq War” might conclude, but the Long War with Islamist fanaticism — of which Iraq will be a central part — will not conclude in 2010 or even during your presidency (be it four or eight years).
President Bush and Prime Minister Maliki signed the Status of Forces Agreement, a binding treaty which ensures U.S. troops will remain in Iraq until January 1, 2012. President Obama has acknowledged this and foresees 30,000 to 50,000 U.S. forces remaining in Iraq after 2010 for “advisory” purposes, a South Korea-like alliance. This is healthy, so long as President Obama also acknowledges the following: Iraq is the new Israel, in that its tyrannical neighbors will periodically attempt to liquidate it.
The war against Iraq ended in 2003. The war within Iraq is nearly over. But the war for Iraq, Mr. Obama, will go on for many years.