Since it appears that today is officially The End of The Iraq War, I suppose I could finally do a post on the thing, since I never have, actually, written about it.
I never quite had the same strong feelings as others about the Iraq War; I suspect that my ambivalence, and that of many others, probably plays more of a role in why we went there, and stayed there, than I would probably like.
It's too soon, really, to fully take apart the decisions to go into Iraq - both in 1992 and again in 2002 - and see how they've touched so much of our nation, our culture and our politics. That's a story we'll be unraveling for years to come, and I suspect what we eventually learn won't be as simple, or easy as one side or another would like it to be.
As a nation we are, of course, responsible for helping to put Saddam Hussein into power, and for choosing, for a long time, to look the other way about his exercise of power and control. Whether that put us in a uniquely responsible position to have to deal with him when he invaded Kuwait is open to debate. It's less debatable that our decision to invade Iraq after 9/11 was pretty much entirely unjustifiable, a stain we will bear for years to come.
Still, my own ambivalence, such as it was, came from an awareness that someone, at some point, had to figure out how to intervene and remove Hussein; if nothing else, the subsequent events we've seen in the past year, in Tunisia and Egypt and Syria and Libya (and Yemen and Bahrain and Jordan...), are all indications that there probably is no good way, and no easy to define right way, to remove a despot. I'm not saying we did the right thing, invading a sovereign nation to remove its dictator... but in the list of things that shouldn't have happened in Iraq, getting Hussein out of power is not really on it.
The Iraq War was, to my mind, a reminder that American greatness is overstated and poorly understood, by us and by others. As Americans we overvalue the sense of our own good intentions, and try to ignore the nasty brutishness that is part of our true strength - which, on the one hand, enables the warmongers among us, but also warps the opposite pull to reject conflict and seek peace. We are not, necessarily, a pacifist nation. We are the worst of playground bullies, telling people, as we smash things, that its for their own good... and then saying we're really sorry about what got broke. We value freedom and the free exchange of ideas... until people are free to criticize us and offer ideas about how we might be bad actors. We do not have the money, or the soldiers, to be the world's policeman or its peacekeeper... but we're imatient to have others come around to our point of view, and the world does look to us, even while disliking our exercise of power. All of this, really, is what helped get us into Iraq, and made it hard to get out.
So much of the Iraqi conflict, too, had to be bound up in our own complex history, the life we've had as a nation since Vietnam. Did Iraq show that we'd "learned something" out of Vietnam? Probably yes and no: certainly we are not, as a nation, as naive as we were in the early sixties about the costs of war. We have no draft, there was less patience with President Bush, less patience to "wait and see." Yet clearly, some of the lessons we learned were the wrong ones: Having "clear goals" didn't make them right ones, we still seem to have an upper limit of around 3,500 casualties where war simply becomes too much for us, and we still, in some ways, seem tremendously naive when it comes to others seeing us for our good intentions and high ideals. And it's not as simple as what they don't see... it's also about not wanting to admit to what we don't have. Or what we do.
I am not so deeply cynical as to say that the Iraq War was solely about oil; there's a reductiveness to statements like that which tend to reflect back on the people who make the claim. If war is a human tragedy, then the reasons we choose to attack others, to shoot and kill, have a human dimension. This was never just about oil. It was about other things - fear, and prejudices and yes, a sense of justice, however misplaced - and all of them, really, were tragic. And poor reasons to spend 20 years at war with one small nation. I am cynical enough, though, to know that whatever we think we've learned as a result of Iraq, we're all too likely to keep on being the nation that stomps around and breaks things, for the very best of reasons. And really, what other kind of reasons are there?
Honestly, I never believed Barack Obama when he said we would leave Iraq. I figured it would be like Germany, always a base, just in case. I don't think Americans know how to end things - not big things, not small things. Our wars are endless. Our divorces are messy. We talk about "closure" so much because we have no idea what it means. Move on? How?
Of course, we aren't really leaving Iraq - there is that "embassy" we built, a palace all its own, just another way for us to exert power and control and keep, you know, an eye on things. From playground bully to stalker boyfriend... we are the nation that cares, a little too much, and in all the wrong ways. And as long as the Iraqis remain grateful... everything will be just fine. And if the rest of the world will just behave... we'll stay over here in our comfy chair, the bat comfortably at rest at our side. You know how we just hate to have to use the bat. Doesn't that show how we have so many good intentions.