Announcing the departure of the last U.S. combat troops from Iraq, President Obama made it sound like a defeat. "Ending this war is not only in Iraq's interest – it is in our own," he said Tuesday night. "We have met our responsibility. Now, it is time to turn the page."
He could not more wrong about Iraq or the war: the fact that those troops are leaving in victory —and not exiting from the roof of the embassy in crowded Huey Cobra helicopter — will not be noticed as much as the plain fact they are leaving.
If politicians or the press admit that we have largely won the war, it would reveal that the combat troops' departure is purely an ideological necessity, not a military one: America is not being pushed out of Iraq by a relentless foe, but calmly leaving on its own schedule.
Already anti-war activists are painting the liberation of Iraq as the squandering of American blood and treasure that did not make America any safer, and only deepened the divide between America and the Muslim world.
Meanwhile, conservative commentators, like the Council on Foreign Relations's Max Boot, only mumble that it is "too soon to tell."
Even the public is turning against the Iraq war. 54 percent of Americans surveyed by Gallup in July 2010 said the U.S. "made a mistake in sending troops to Iraq," up from 23 percent in March 2003
But let's consider the question of the Iraq war fully by examining three bundles of evidence: the war's effect on Iraq, the war's effect on the U.S. military, and the war's effect on America's role in wider world.
Since liberation, Iraq is better off by any measure: economics, politics, or security.
Under Saddam Hussein, the average Iraqi was among the poorest in the Middle East, with no access to cell phones, private bank accounts or satellite television. Appliances, like refrigerators and air conditioners, were scarce and more costly than in the United States. Mechanics who fixed cars could only dream of owning one. Hospital administrators' offices were cooled by air conditioners, but not the wards where sick children tried to sleep.
After liberation, economic misery sharply declined. Iraq went from being a nation with some of the highest tariffs in the world to being the one with some of the lowest—slashing the costs of goods across the board. "Big-ticket" items suddenly came within reach of ordinary Iraqis. A huge used-car market sprang up: enterprising Iraqis hitchhiked to Jordan or Syria, bought a used car, drove it to Baghdad and sold it for a small profit. Soon car sellers became so numerous that virtually any Iraqi who wanted a used car could have one for about $1,000.
When I first saw the clothing and food markets in Southern Iraq in July 2003, the locals were proud of the large variety of foreign products. While it might have been better than in Saddam's days, it still seemed pretty East German. But when I returned to those same markets in June 2006, there were stores crowded with new fans, washing machines, and dishwashers from China, Korea and Japan. Prices were lower than in eastern Europe for comparable goods, and some merchants were even extending credit.
For the first time, people were buying air conditioners and washing machines.
The Paris-based OECD captures the trend with a single number: per-capita income in Iraq tripled from 2003 t0 2006. Today, it is higher still.
Home prices are still rising in Baghdad (and apparently in other major Iraqi cities), suggesting that demand is greater than supply. And people are buying.
Private banks accounts are now allowed; many Iraqis will proudly show you their ATM cards.
Food shortages are a distant memory, and private-sector jobs, while still outstripped by government jobs, and jobs created by government contractors, are growing.
Overall, the people of Iraq are far better off economically than they were under Saddam's failing Stalinist economy.
Politics is another success story, although you would never know that from the press coverage. In past five years, we have been repeatedly told how slow the parliament is to adopt needed laws, and how hard it is to forge a governing coalition. (Even now Iraq is in coalition talks to form a government.)
Of course, only sham parliaments pass laws according to the schedules of outsiders; and all parliamentary systems produce delays before coalitions can be assembled. Yes, assembling Iraq's coalition is taking longer than France's, but it is not unheard of in the parliamentary world. Belgium went for nearly a year without a governing coalition in 2009, and few called it a failed state.
Iraq regularly holds elections for local, provincial and national government posts, and candidates are not excluded on the basis of religion or sex. Both women and Christians hold political office in Iraq — a rarity in the quasi-democratic Arab world.
The big news is not that Iraq's democracy is not perfect but that it has a working democracy at all.
Against all odds, a democratic culture is emerging — the very thing that war critics said was impossible in the harsh soil of the Middle East. It is still a rough and raw form of democracy, but so are the new democracies of Eastern Europe. Given Iraq's tragic history and dangerous neighborhood, it is a triumph that its democracy is as vibrant as, say, Hungary's or Bulgaria's. But it is.
Critics of Iraq's democracy like to compare it unfavorably to the United States or Western Europe -- making the near-perfect the enemy of the good. Iraq should be compared to other young democracies, such as in Eastern Europe; against those democracies it compares rather well.
Most importantly, Iraqis increasingly see the democratic process — not insurgency or civil war —as the best way to address grievances. Sunnis, for example, now vote in large numbers and propose their own slate of candidates.
Iraqis will tell you that they are far freer today than either their Arab or Persian neighbors. They can read newspapers that criticize or defend the government, watch competing news channels, give a public speech without fear of arrest and vote for any number of competing political parties.
Now, let us consider security for the average Iraqi: this past Saturday saw massive truck bomb attacks in Baghdad; an al Qaeda umbrella group claimed credit for killing some 56 people. Announcing a withdrawal of foreign troops, however, always leads to increased terror attacks -- as the Soviets saw when they telegraphed that their withdrawal from Afghanistan would be complete by 1989. 1987 and 1988 were the worst years for terror attacks in the whole of the Soviet-Afghan war.
This weekend's terror attacks do not, however, change the underlying trend line:
Civilian death tolls have plummeted from a peak of nearly 4,000 per month in July 2006, to less than 300 per month in April 2010, according to the Iraq Index maintained by the Brookings Institution. (April 2010 is the latest civilian-death estimates available.) Or consider the annual civilian deaths by year -- a sustained drop since the surge in 2007:
2010: 825 (through April 2010)
Meanwhile, Defense Department records show a decline in U.S. military deaths from a peak of more than 120 per month in 2007, to 3 in August 2010.
Finally, let us remember that Saddam Hussein's Iraq was not a very safe place. There were bombing and shootings at least on par with 2010 levels, if not higher. No official statistics were kept, and the bombings were not generally reported on state-run media; but anecdotal and other reports show a sustained level of violence in the Saddam years. People tend to imagine dictatorships as solid and stable things; instead, dictatorships are a relentless civil war by the rulers against the majority. A continuing civil war can turn hot, and, in Saddam's era, often did.
The death tolls in the Saddam years were far higher than in the years following liberation; hundreds of thousands disappeared into mass graves.
Even Hussein's followers and his family were not safe. Using a sharpened cane and electric-carving knife, Uday Hussein, Saddam's eldest son, killed Saddam's valet at a crowded party to honor Egypt's president's wife. Later, in an assassination attempt, Uday was permanently disabled by gun-wielding man – one of eleven known assassination attempts. Saddam himself faced dozens of assassination attempts: neither rulers nor the ruled were safe in Saddam's nightmare world.
Iraqis are safer today from their government, and from each other, than ever before.
What about the toll taken on the U.S. military?
While every soldier's life is precious, it is astonishing how relatively few Americans were called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice in the Iraq war. Total combat deaths for U.S. forces are 3,491 over eight years. More died in a single day of combat at Antietam (Sharpsburg, Maryland) or on the Normandy landings.
If you average the death toll of 57,000 over the 14 years of the Vietnam War, you get 4,071: one year of the Vietnam War was more deadly than all eight years of the Iraq war combined.
Clearly, the military has learned a lot about combat medicine, body armor, small-unit tactics and hundreds of other advances that save lives, both military and civilian.
Unfortunately, war can be a cruel teacher, but it teaches nonetheless: We should be grateful that in the Iraq War, the tuition — paid in soldier's lives —was not far higher. Moreover, the lessons learned will keep troops safer in the future.
The military also learned some big things, such as how to fight urban wars and small wars -- the two most likely forms of conflict that can be expected over in the 21st century. Thanks to Iraq, a Pentagon, mired in the thinking of World War II tactics, has learned how to fight on future battlefields. The surge in Iraq, and the use of light and nimble forces in Somalia, are among the benefits of our military leaders' Iraq education.
The Wider World
While it is admittedly difficult to draw straight-line connections between the Iraq war and the actions of other governments, several connections seem undeniable:
Libya confessed to a largely unknown nuclear-weapons program, and in the wake of the U.S. invasion, unilaterally disarmed.
Inspired by Iraq's fledgling democracy, Lebanon forced Syrian military units to leave its country. While the Syrian intelligence apparatus no doubt remains, and the Saudi influence is strong, Lebanon is more democratic today than before the Fall of Baghdad -- if it can stay that way.
Finally, the war enhanced American credibility. At the end of any diplomatic process, there might be the implied threat of military force. Future presidents will benefit, in their diplomatic efforts, from the vivid memory of American forces confronting the fourth-largest army in the world and defeating its major units in a matter of weeks. The defeat of the insurgency, which was far more difficult, is also instructive to the leaders of other lands.
If the world knows that you are not a paper tiger, you do not often have to roar.
While the Iraq war and liberation were far from perfect, any balanced assessment would have to conclude that for Americans and Iraqis, both are better off. Sorry, President Obama, but it was a success.