The US withdrew from Iraq a long time ago
The removal of US troops isn’t that significant. Politically and emotionally, Washington left Iraq some time around 2004.
‘Tonight, I am announcing that the American combat mission in Iraq has ended. Operation Iraqi Freedom is over and the Iraqi people now have lead responsibility for the security of their country.’
American president Barack Obama’s speech on Tuesday evening brought an official end to a war that has lasted seven years and 165 days. American soldiers will now start returning home.
The sense of terminus is a little misleading, however. Far from leaving Iraq entirely, 50,000 US troops will remain there until 2012. It’s just that their job title has changed: they are now formally preparing the Iraq Security Forces rather than formally fighting the insurgency. In reality, the content of their role is not so different. The remaining brigades are still heavily armed and, due to having to defend themselves from near daily attacks, they will still be fighting and killing. Little wonder Obama felt the need to add that the ‘violence will not end with our combat mission’.
But it wasn’t just the phased nature of the withdrawal that imbued Obama’s speech with a sense of anti-climax. And neither was it simply, as some commentators have noted, an attempt by Obama to strike a politically correct sentiment, one that neither denigrated nor celebrated the war, one that acknowledged the ‘sacrifices’ of US soldiers while simultaneously recognising that the war was a ‘contentious issue’ among Americans. No, Obama’s near reticence, his sombre tone and his conciliatory gesturing indicate something deeper. With the phrase, ‘it’s time to turn the page’, he captured that profound longing to be finally finished with Iraq. What is done is done, for better or for worse, he seemed to be saying. It is a war that has dragged on, that has passed, no matter how briefly, from being a vital cause for the US and its Western allies, to being a dead weight around their necks. While the actual withdrawal is only now beginning in earnest, politically and emotionally the Coalition of the Willing withdrew many years ago.
Back in May 2003, a month after Saddam Hussein’s statue had been pulled down in Baghdad, then President Bush stood on board a US aircraft carrier before a banner which read ‘Mission accomplished’. A month later in a speech to troops stationed in Iraq, Bush gave voice to the sentiment: ‘America sent you on a mission to remove a grave threat and to liberate an oppressed people, and that mission has been accomplished.’ In subsequent years, as fighting in Iraq escalated and a previously oppressed people enjoyed the ruined infrastructure and existential insecurity of their ‘liberation’, Bush was widely mocked for his premature victory speeches.
Yet there was something to Bush’s ‘our job is done’ conviction. Of course, it had nothing to do with the volatile and bloody post-invasion reality of Iraq; there was nothing accomplished about that. But then again, that wasn’t the point. The war in Iraq always had less to do with the actuality of a country in the Middle East than it did with a political crisis in the West. The war answered a political need; it allowed disoriented elites in Washington and London to demonstrate authority, to show purpose. By getting rid of Saddam, they were ridding the world of a dangerous presence, a source of fear. They were waging a war on behalf of our security. They were making us feel safe. That the deposition of Saddam was so effortless – an indication of just how weak a threat the Ba’athist regime really was – was merely a vindication of the rightness of the coalition’s mission. As The Brutal Dictator fell, so the US-led coalition’s moral stock rose. Then prime minister Tony Blair’s recent admission shows how little the future of Iraqi society figured at the war’s conception: ‘I can say that never did I guess the nightmare that unfolded, and that too is part of the responsibility.’
The sheer lack of planning for post-invasion Iraq was not just a terrible mistake. It went hand in hand with the nature of the conflict, a war conceived in the West for the West. The reality of Iraq, the reality of a society without a government, appeared to the war’s protagonists as little more than an unexpected contingency, an unforeseen consequence. Almost from the moment the Ba’athists were overthrown, the coalition was in the process of withdrawing – if not in terms of troops, then certainly in terms of political and emotional investment. As far as the coalition had envisaged, its mission really would be over with the overthrow of Saddam. The invasion would have served its purpose.
There was plenty of evidence of this political withdrawal, this eagerness on the part of the US and the UK to absolve themselves of responsibility for Iraq. The use of contracted mercenaries instead of national state troops, for instance, showed the willingness of the coalition to avail itself of responsibility for the use of force. Indeed, such was the eagerness of the Coalition Provisional Authority (May 2003 to June 2004) to pass the buck for this ruined, ravaged country that it even had a ‘countdown to sovereignty’ ticker on its website, as if social, political struggles could be reduced to the laws of physics.
Sadly, sovereignty is never just a matter of time. An election came and went in 2005, and far from stabilising the country, it just seemed to make Iraq more fragile. Such was the increasing volatility of the situation that the US had more troops stationed in Iraq in 2007 than at any time since the start of the war – 170,000 in total. For the US, the war, waged with self-aggrandising intentions, had not only outlived its purpose, persisting as a bloody guerrilla conflict, it was now undermining that purpose. What was meant to cement authority back home, to assuage fears of WMD-fuelled terrorism and overthrow an evil tyranny, was now exacerbating fears of radicalised, bomb-wielding Muslims and brutalising an entire nation. The factual legacy of the invasion is its own indictment. Over 100,000 Iraqi civilians are thought to have lost their lives. Add to that two million refugees and a further two million displaced within Iraq, and the scale of the devastation wrought on Iraq becomes clear.
As for creating a democracy, five months on from the most recent Iraq election, no government has been formed. This is hardly surprising given the fragmented nature of Iraqi society – a situation reflected by the fact that there were 90 different factions vying for power. A popular movement, the groundswell of solidarity necessary for a popular government, remains absent. Sovereignty, it seems, can be as little imposed on a people as liberty, something the intervention-happy coalition failed to grasp. As oppressive as the Ba’athist regime was, it held Iraqi society together at some level. By removing it, the coalition did not liberate Iraqis – it simply left them in thrall to those forces sucked into the country’s power vacuum, from ex-Ba’athists and al-Qaeda-style factions to Turkey- or Iran-backed groupings.
Iraq is being left in a precarious position. Yet so desperate is the US to wash its hands of Iraq that one military official admitted that not even a coup would prompt a return: ‘It would be a difficult decision, but even then we would probably leave it up to them. That’s what withdrawing from Iraq means.’ This is a telling comment. In a war that was devoid of practical policy aims, whether to pursue national interest or to gain geopolitical advantage, the eventual withdrawal was always bound to be equally as meaningless, driven not by the realisation of any particular objectives but by an arbitrary timetable. That Iraq could end up being governed by a regime as oppressive as the Ba’athists is neither here nor there.
This was always a war, not for Iraq, but for that elusive sense of Western purpose. After seven-and-a-half years, however, it seems that the main reason for being there is to find a way to leave.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
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