BOSTON — The Iraq War began at 10:15 p.m. Eastern time on March 19, 2003, as U.S. bombs rained down on Baghdad in what the U.S. military called “shock and awe."
Americans watched in amazement as it unfolded on their television sets.
From the White House, President George W. Bush told the nation:
“My fellow citizens, at this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger… Our nation enters this conflict reluctantly, yet our purpose is sure. The people of the United States and our friends and allies will not live at the mercy of an outlaw regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass murder.”
Last Friday, at 12:49 p.m., President Barack Obama finally closed the door on this brutal conflict.
“As a candidate for President, I pledged to bring the war in Iraq to a responsible end — for the sake of our national security and to strengthen American leadership around the world… So today, I can report that, as promised, the rest of our troops in Iraq will come home by the end of the year. After nearly nine years, America’s war in Iraq will be over.”
The United States leaves blood and immense treasure behind in Iraq. We also leave a Gordian knot of complex and dangerous geopolitical issues. The greater tragedy is that all were known and flagged back in 2002 as the Bush administration orchestrated its invasion strategy.
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Iraq is a fragile state with weak soil for its fledgling democracy. It has a population with deep sectarian divides between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam in addition to an independent-minded and aggressive Kurdish minority in the northern part of the country. The insurgency in Iraq is not over, and the violence continues. A host of economic and social challenges remain unresolved. Most worrisome for U.S. national security is the rising influence of Iran, with its virulent anti-Americanism and apparent determination to build nuclear weapons capability. The government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has clearly fallen under the sway of Iran — a bitter irony for the United States — but just such an outcome was long ago predicted.
It’s also worth remembering that Iraq fought a long and incredibly brutal war with Iran from September 1980 to August 1988, the longest conventional war of the 20th century, in which half a million people were killed. Saddam Hussein and his Sunni-dominated regime invaded its neighbor to the east primarily out of fear that the Iranian Revolution of 1978 would spread across Iraq’s border and cause its long suppressed Shiite majority to rise up.
President Bush went to war in Iraq maintaining that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Many were convinced the president was wrong then, and the facts have proved just so. The Iraq Survey Group, led by the United States in the post-invasion search for evidence of WMD, determined that Iraq ended its nuclear, chemical and biological programs in 1991 following the First Gulf War. The other oft-mentioned reason for invading Iraq – that Saddam was harboring Al Qaeda militants — was also never proven, despite extensive efforts to do so.
The war in Iraq is notable for the sacrifice and brave service of American military personnel, 4,500 of whom have died over these nine years and more than 32,000 of whom have been wounded. Also notable is the immense suffering of the Iraqi people who have lost tens of thousands to this senseless war. Finally, the financial cost to America has been staggering, with hundreds of billions of dollars expended, money we could have and should have invested in building up our own nation and its economy.
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The United States will, of course, maintain a significant diplomatic and security presence in Iraq even after the last American troops leave in December. But it is hard to be optimistic about the future of a country so riven by factionalism and hobbled by weak leadership.
Critics of President Obama are certainly right to point to the dangers posed by Iran gaining even greater influence over Iraq in the months and years ahead. But they would do well to study up on that bloody 8-year-long 1980s war. The fears that drove Saddam Hussein to invade Iran have not vanished from the hearts and minds of the Sunni population of Iraq. A more plausible concern is escalating internal conflict in Iraq.
There is much that America can accomplish in this dangerous world, but there are also many things we cannot.
We have given much and suffered much in Iraq. History has proven that the national security interests of this country were never at any serious risk from Saddam Hussein, and this was a war that did not need to be fought. We cannot hold Iraq together by our physical presence, and it would be absurd to argue that our commitment there should be indefinite.
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America can protect its vital and legitimate interests in the region in many ways, including through intelligence operations and diplomacy. President Obama has made the wise decision. U.S. military involvement in Iraq has to end, and now is the time.
Phil Balboni is the Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder of GlobalPost and writes a column on national and international affairs.