President Obama’s announcement that all US forces would be out of Iraq by the end of the year, thereby ending the longest and one of the most divisive foreign policy actions in US history.
I still remember the spring of 2003. I was finishing up my book on German foreign policy. Gerhard Schroeder had won re-election as German Chancellor by actively opposing the US decision to go to war in Iraq. I was adding the final pieces to my last edit when the war started on March 20 (19th if you count the attempt to take out Saddam the night before), and on April 3rd I finished for good, sending back the last changes.
I know it was April 3, 2003 because as I was making my final edits my wife came to let me know that it was time to go to the hospital. “Five more minutes,” I said, finishing up. We left at about 5:00 PM, and at 11:47 PM that same day our first son Ryan was born. In that sense, I’ve always had a measure of how long the war dragged on by the growth of my son. He’s now in third grade; the US has been in Iraq his whole life.
I was also teaching American Foreign Policy with a delightfully talkative class which debated and argued with each other in a way that never got mean or nasty. Lance Harvell, now a GOP representative for my state district and neighbor was there, a non-traditional student who’d been in the military. There was Sam Marzenell, Joonseob Park, Christine Rice, Sev Slaymaker and others, debating current events as they unfolded.
I opposed the war, arguing that Iraq’s political culture was not conducive to democracy and rather than be a quick, easy victory enhancing the US role in the region it could turn into a disaster dragging out over years and helping al qaeda recruit. At least one student from that class who disagreed with me has since contacted me to tell me that they had to admit I was right. I think most people who study comparative politics were skeptical of the idea of making Iraq into a model democracy, you don’t just remake societies. This wasn’t like Japan and Germany after WWII, this was a divided pre-modern society with an Ottoman heritage.
Yet what I really remember from that class is how I felt like a good professor in that students were willing and able to debate me using real foreign policy arguments about policy, not fearing that I would somehow punish them for disagreeing (as one told me, some students suspected I gave higher grades to those who disagreed), and making really excellent points. Why can’t all political disagreements be so heated in substance but friendly in form? The day Saddam’s government fell I remember coming to class, tired because of our newborn son, and asked by delighted conservatives what I thought now that Iraq fell so quickly. “Now comes the hard part,” I said, admitting that the war itself had been faster and more effectively than I had expected.
At that point support for the war was high. It was just two years after 9-11, and Afghanistan was seen as a done war, with troops staying just to help the new government get off and running. The next year, in 2004 when Dr. Mellisa Clawson from Early Childhood Education and I taught the course “Children and War” for the first time (we’re teaching it again, for the fourth time next semester) many students were nationalistic and reacted negatively sometimes to our clear skepticism about US policy.
In 2005 for me the tone changed after Vice President Cheney’s “last throes” quote describing the Iraqi insurgency on June 20, 2005. On June 24, 2005 I wrote:
Cheney claimed (still believing his propaganda, perhaps) that the insurgency was in its ‘last throes’ (he defended that by talking about the dictionary meaning of ‘throes’) and — most absurdly — tried to compare this to the Battle of the Bulge and Okinawa. That is the point where the propaganda becomes so absurd that it really had morphed into comedy. This is not a battle against another military superpower where there can be a turning point or where they throw all they have at one battle hoping to turn things around. This is a battle against an insurgency that is building, and which can choose targets, play the time game, and score political victories despite successes in the American/Iraqi military offensives. If they are comparing this to Germany and Japan, they are grasping at whatever they can to try to convince themselves that things will get better. They are out of touch with reality.
By 2006 Iraq slipped into civil war, public opinion shifted against the war, the Democrats took the House, and President Bush’s approval ratings began an inexorable slide to some of the lowest in history. Yet, in 2007 he made the right call. He dumped the original goal of defeating the insurgency and setting up a pro-American government with whom we would be allies and have permanent bases, and embraced a realist notion of making deals with the insurgents, focusing instead only on al qaeda and trying to create enough stability so we could declare victory and leave. It was a retreat from the grandiose vision of the neo-cons, but for me it increased my respect for President Bush. He did something that LBJ couldn’t do in Vietnam: he changed course.
President Obama has taken that policy to it’s logical conclusion. By the end of the year the US will be out completely, and efforts to leave Afghanistan are growing as well. There will be time to reflect on the lessons learned from this war, and how it changed both the US and the Mideast. The challenge of counter-terrorism remains. The Arab world is at the start of a long transition which will no doubt have peaks and valleys, Pakistan and Afghanistan still represent uncertainty, but at least we’re not caught in a quagmire.
For now, it’s a time for a sigh of relief that this traumatic and costly conflict is now truly entering its last phase. President Obama disappointed the anti-war crowd by a cautious winding down of the war rather than a quick exit, but combined with Gaddafi’s death in Libya yesterday, he’s piling up foreign policy success after foreign policy success. And as bad as the economy is, I’d rather the economy be the main issue on the minds of voters than a foreign war.