President Obama's speech last night was supposed to be a victory lap, but it was a rather laborious one, searching for reasons to celebrate when they can be hard to find. The end of combat operations is truly important, and all Americans should pause to honor it. But we should not high-five too loudly, for three reasons.
First, it is unclear what has ended and what remains – the 50,000 US troops still on the ground are not exactly removed from danger, and we are likely settling in for a long presence, not unlike our experience in Korea, now sixty-years old and counting.
2nd, it is difficult to celebrate Iraq's current circumstances, with a rise in bombing and sectarian violence, and zero leadership among the Iraqi political elite. We have replaced a dysfunctional dictator with a dysfunctional "democracy" that is not all that democratic, and whose ability to govern is highly suspect.
3rd, the mood at home is dark because of the economy – a fact that was on display as Obama jumped from foreign to domestic policy, as soon as the speech started. It is fair to link the two – the trillion dollars that has been spent on Iraq could have jumpstarted hundreds of thousands of American businesses. But it is also dangerous in an Oval Office speech to switch too quickly from one topic to another. Jimmy Carter's notorious "malaise" speech in 1979 did that, veering from energy policy to the "erosion of our confidence in the future." That is swampy terrain, and taking too many steps can make it even swampier.
Fortunately, last night's speech did not go too far down that path. It was restrained, and eloquent in sections, and it did what it needed to do, finishing a messy job, and walking away. "It is time to turn the page," the president said, emphatically. For that alone, Barack Obama deserves some plaudits. Ending the Iraq war was the original impetus behind the Obama campaign, and gave an outside challenger a crucial edge over Hillary Clinton from the start. That a phase of the war has now ended is truly momentous, and all Americans owe a debt of gratitude to the men and women who served valiantly under difficult circumstances, including a confused mission, multiple enemies, and long absences from home.
But it is difficult to run into the streets and celebrate the end of a tragedy that never should have happened. As with Korea and Vietnam, Iraq presents a complex set of problems for historians, torn between genuine admiration for the heroism that was displayed by so many people fighting for a better future, and a reality that fell short of our idealism. Despite the progress of the past few years, the Iraq war was poorly run for the simple reason that it was poorly conceived, and launched under a suspicious pretext that never panned out. We did not find weapons of mass destruction, we did not build a vibrant democracy in the Middle East, and we asked a great deal of this country – including, as President Obama said, the ultimate sacrifice from 4400 brave Americans. The result is complicated legacy: a potentially divided Iraq, a resurgent Iran, an empowered China, and a United States that has lost some of its indispensability. That may start to change today, if President Obama can lead a peace process that achieves the goal that has eluded so many American presidents. And in fact, declaring the war in Iraq over may be a vital step toward that goal. One can hope. Indeed, one must.