Relief is not the same thing as happiness. It’s easy enough to imagine both ex-wives driving off after saying they had to move on. Were they happy? Probably not – just relieved to be getting away from the strange guy with the pipe, who wasn’t what they had expected, or what they imagined they could make into something serviceable. But much uncertainty loomed large for each of them. The coming year or two would be uncomfortable. But you move on.
Of course everyone knows about relief that doesn’t call for celebration – walking out of the long exam where you know you probably didn’t do well. Well, it is over. The grade will come later. Being happy is not appropriate or even possible – you’re just relived. And there’s fixing the brakes on the car. You put a lot of new debt on the plastic and you’re not happy about that, but you do know that now you’re not going to rear-end some hip-hop star in his fancy Escalade on Sunset Boulevard. Those guys have agents with armies of lawyers. Taking care of a serious problem doesn’t make you happy in that case. Actually you are quite unhappy, but relieved. It’s a matter of taking care of things. And much of life seems to be like that, like the day after you’ve had a colonoscopy and found out that you’re just fine and there’s no problem at all. That’s good. But you’re not happy, and you’re walking funny.
But people ask questions. Are you happy now? And are you supposed to pretend you’re happy? Is that what people expect? What are you supposed to say?
That was Obama’s dilemma on Tuesday, August 31, 2010 – he had to make the formal announcement to the American people that the Iraq War was over. But it wasn’t, or it had been over for a long time. It sort of depends on how you look at it. We had withdrawn the last combat brigade, but we’ll still have fifty thousand troops there, along with at least that many contractors we say don’t count. There will be fighting. Some of our guys will die.
But major combat operations have ended and we have prevailed.
No, wait – you don’t want to say that. That’s exactly what George Bush said on the carrier deck off San Diego on May 1, 2003 – under that Mission Accomplished banner. And there was the flight suit with the massive codpiece that thrilled people like Chris Matthews:
We’re proud of our president. Americans love having a guy as president, a guy who has a little swagger, who’s physical, who’s not a complicated guy like Clinton or even like Dukakis or Mondale, all those guys, McGovern. They want a guy who’s president. Women like a guy who’s president. Check it out. The women like this war. I think we like having a hero as our president. It’s simple. We’re not like the Brits. We don’t want an indoor prime minister type, or the Danes or the Dutch or the Italians, or a Putin. Can you imagine Putin getting elected here? We want a guy as president.
G. Gordon Liddy was more explicit:
You know, he’s in his flight suit, he’s striding across the deck, and he’s wearing his parachute harness, you know – and I’ve worn those because I parachute – and it makes the best of his manly characteristic. You go run those – run that stuff again of him walking across there with the parachute. He has just won every woman’s vote in the United States of America. You know, all those women who say size doesn’t count – they’re all liars. Check that out. I hope the Democrats keep ratting on him and all of this stuff so that they keep showing that tape.
But that turned out to be a fiasco. The war spiraled downward. That banner soon turned bitterly ironic. One must be careful about manly triumphal calls for national celebration. Obama couldn’t go there.
And Iraq is a bit of a mess. All the reconstruction somehow just didn’t happen – fifty-three billion dollars spent and not much of anything to show for it – an electrical grid that provides maybe four hours of power a day, on a good day, when before we arrived that wasn’t a problem – and sewage treatment plants that don’t work and aren’t even connected to anything at all. The locals are a bit unhappy with us. And their own government isn’t there – they don’t quite have one. They had their national elections in March. September opens with no government yet. They haven’t been able to form one – they’re still discussing the matter, off and on. And the Sunni guys are blowing up this and that. These are the guys we paid during The Awakening to join us and fight the bad guys. Now we’re easing out and not paying them any longer, and they’re back to their old ways, blowing up the Shiites who now nominally run the place. They don’t want to be eliminated. And we’re no longer a factor.
Calling this a victory would be quite a stretch. The best we can say is that it’s over – sort of. We certainly didn’t lose – not at all. But it’s hard to say we won. We did prevail, or at least did the best we could. It is probably best to avoid talk about winning big or really losing, because we didn’t exactly lose – far from it. But what’s left? We can say we’re leaving.
And of course this led to the most necessarily absurd speech by an American president in years:
President Obama declared an end on Tuesday to the seven-year American combat mission in Iraq, saying that the United States has met its responsibility to that country and that it is now time to turn to pressing problems at home.
In a prime-time address from the Oval Office, Mr. Obama balanced praise for the troops who fought and died in Iraq with his conviction that getting into the conflict had been a mistake in the first place. But he also used the moment to emphasize that he sees his primary job as addressing the weak economy and other domestic issues – and to make clear that he intends to begin disengaging from the war in Afghanistan next summer.
“We have sent our young men and women to make enormous sacrifices in Iraq, and spent vast resources abroad at a time of tight budgets at home,” Mr. Obama said. “Through this remarkable chapter in the history of the United States and Iraq, we have met our responsibility. Now, it’s time to turn the page.”
The man is great at making inspiring speeches. This wasn’t want one of them. It couldn’t be. He had to say, well, that’s over – we have other critical issues that need attention. Let’s talk about those. It’s little wonder that if you flipped between CNN and Fox News and MSNBC after the speech you heard pundit after pundit say that was a real dud. What did they expect?
The president celebrated our technical compliance with the Status of Forces Agreement negotiated by President Bush and the Iraqi government with a somber speech from the recently redecorated Oval Office. … Obama talked at length about the state of America at home. He mentioned our recession in the fifth sentence. He positioned the official end of the Iraq war not as our opportunity to refocus on Afghanistan, or defeating al-Qaida, but as the time to get America back to work.
That wasn’t inspiring, but it couldn’t be:
I don’t think it was a particularly great or memorable speech, and I also think it scarcely would’ve mattered if it had been a great speech in this media environment and political climate, but this is more or less the withdrawal we were promised, even if tens of thousands of troops remain, and some of them are sure to be killed in the months and years ahead.
The president reminded us that he never wanted this war to begin with, but he said it is “time to turn the page” on the disagreements of the early 2000s. And, at the end of the day, we all love the troops, very much.
And it was almost an absurd scolding:
The president brought up “responsibility” multiple times. The Iraqis are now responsible for rebuilding their own nation, after we upended it. We are now responsible for taking care of our veterans and getting back to work. “And, next July,” the president said, “we will begin a transition to Afghan responsibility.” So next year we’ll be done with that war, too. (Depending, of course, on the “conditions on the ground.”)
We are now able, we were told, to “go on the offense” against al-Qaida, which is made up of a couple hundred people located mainly in Pakistan. We were reminded, again, to be concerned about the deficit, but told, again, not to hold Obama responsible…
Yep, he said that wasn’t his fault:
Unfortunately, over the last decade, we have not done what is necessary to shore up the foundation of our own prosperity. We have spent over a trillion dollars at war, often financed by borrowing from overseas. This, in turn, has short-changed investments in our own people, and contributed to record deficits.
That’s all true. But no one wants to hear it. Actually it was a bit like listening to the second wife explaining why she had to leave. Things have gone wrong, so certain unpleasant things must be done, but it’s really hard to specify them, so bye-bye unless you fix them, but it’s hard to see how you do that. That’s depressing, and Pareene gets it:
President Obama doesn’t want to be a war president, even if he’ll eventually be defined, as most presidents are, by how he handled the wars. Presidents have more power over how we conduct ourselves abroad than they do over domestic issues anyway, as Obama’s stressful first term is proving. So while we got odd campaign boilerplate about how “we must unleash the innovation that allows new products to roll off our assembly lines, and nurture the ideas that spring from our entrepreneurs” (and go ahead and add “end our dependence on foreign oil” to your Bingo card), we learned no more about how we’ll achieve that than we learned about how we’ll decide, next July, if Afghanistan is ready for us to leave, yet.
He notes that Barack Obama didn’t start these wars, and there’s no good way to end them. But of course Obama had to make a speech, as this was a momentous occasion, of sorts. And the speech made no one happy.
And, as with divorce, there is the matter of blame. Glenn Greenwald covers that:
The predominant attribute of American elites is a refusal to take responsibility for any failures. The favored tactic for accomplishing this evasion is the “nobody-could-have-known” excuse. Each time something awful occurs – the 9/11 attack, the Iraq War, the financial crisis, the breaking of levees in New Orleans, the general ineptitude and lawlessness of the Bush administration – one is subjected to an endless stream of excuse-making from those responsible, insisting that there was no way they “could have known” what was to happen: ”I don’t think anybody could have predicted that they would try to use an airplane as a missile, a hijacked airplane as a missile,” Condoleezza Rice infamously said on May 16, 2002, despite multiple FBI and intelligence documents warning of exactly that. One finds identical excuses for each contemporary American disaster.
And here we go again:
Because the political class is treating today as some sort of melodramatic milestone in the Iraq War, there is a tidal wave of those self-defending claims crashing down around us. The New York Times’ John Burns — who bravely covered that war for years — presents a classic case of this mentality today in a solemn retrospective entitled “The Long-Awaited Day.” I realize we’re all supposed to genuflect to Burns’ skills as a war journalist — I’ve personally found him far more overtly supportive of the war than most others covering it and certainly more than his claimed objectivity would permit, even when his reporting was illuminating – but if he’s right about what he says today, it’s a rather enormous (albeit unintentional) indictment of himself and his colleagues covering the war…
The Burns piece contains this:
Hindsight is a powerful thing, and there have been plenty of voices amid the tragedy that has unfolded since the invasion to say, in effect, “I told you so.” But among that band of reporters – men and women who thought we knew something about Iraq, and for the most part sympathized with the joy Iraqis felt at what many were unashamed then to call their “liberation” – there were few, if any, who foresaw the extent of the violence that would follow or the political convulsion it would cause in Iraq, America and elsewhere.
We could not know then, though if we had been wiser we might have guessed, the scale of the toll the invasion would unleash: the tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians who would die; the nearly 4,500 American soldiers who would be killed; the nearly 35,000 soldiers who would return home wounded; the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who would flee abroad as refugees; the $750 billion in direct war costs that would burden the United States; the bitterness that would seep into American politics; the anti-Americanism that would become a commonplace around the world.
And Greenwald calls him out on that:
If Burns wants to claim that he and his American media colleagues in Baghdad were unaware that any of this was likely, I can’t and won’t dispute that. In fact, it’s probably true that they were unaware of it – blissfully so – which is why media coverage in the lead-up to the war was so inexcusably one-sided in its war cheerleading, as even Howard Kurtz documented. But Burns’ claim that they “could not know then” that the invasion could unleash all of the tragedy, violence and anti-Americanism it spawned is absolutely ludicrous, a patent attempt to justify his severe errors in judgment as being unavoidable.
The 2004 Howard Kurtz item is here – it’s quite depressing. The media didn’t exactly shine, and Greenwald would rather not excuse them:
Aside from the obvious, intrinsic risks of invading a country smack in the middle of the Muslim world, with much of the world vehemently opposed, there were countless people warning of exactly these possibilities from invading. If Burns and his friends were unaware of those risks, it was only because they decided to ignore those voices, not because they could not have known.
He suggests Jim Webb in 2002:
Meanwhile, American military leaders have been trying to bring a wider focus to the band of neoconservatives that began beating the war drums on Iraq before the dust had even settled on the World Trade Center. Despite the efforts of the neocons to shut them up or to dismiss them as unqualified to deal in policy issues these leaders, both active-duty and retired, have been nearly unanimous in their concerns. Is there an absolutely vital national interest that should lead us from containment to unilateral war and a long-term occupation of Iraq? …
With respect to the situation in Iraq, they are conscious of two realities that seem to have been lost in the narrow debate about Saddam Hussein himself. The first reality is that wars often have unintended consequences – ask the Germans, who in World War I were convinced that they would defeat the French in exactly 42 days. …
The issue before us is not simply whether the United States should end the regime of Saddam Hussein, but whether we as a nation are prepared to physically occupy territory in the Middle East for the next 30 to 50 years. Those who are pushing for a unilateral war in Iraq know full well that there is no exit strategy if we invade and stay. …
The Iraqis are a multiethnic people filled with competing factions who in many cases would view a U.S. occupation as infidels invading the cradle of Islam. Indeed, this very bitterness provided Osama bin Laden the grist for his recruitment efforts in Saudi Arabia when the United States kept bases on Saudi soil after the Gulf War.
In Japan, American occupation forces quickly became 50,000 friends. In Iraq, they would quickly become 50,000 terrorist targets. … It is true that Saddam Hussein might try to assist international terrorist organizations in their desire to attack America. It is also true that if we invade and occupy Iraq without broad-based international support, others in the Muslim world might be encouraged to intensify the same sort of efforts.
No one could have known? That’s bullshit. And of course he cites Howard Dean speaking at Drake University one month before the war began, but no one listened to him, and Greenwald adds this:
I could literally spend the rest of the day quoting those who were issuing similar or even more strident warnings. Anyone who claims they didn’t realize that an attack on Iraq could spawn mammoth civilian casualties, pervasive displacement, endless occupation and intense anti-American hatred is indicting themselves more powerfully than it’s possible for anyone else to do. And anyone who claims, as Burns did, that they “could not know then” that these things might very well happen is simply not telling the truth. They could have known. And should have known. They chose not to.
And there was the WMD issue:
Contrary to the pervasive self-justifying myth that “everyone” believed that Saddam possessed these weapons – and thus nobody can be blamed for failing to realize the truth – the evidence to the contrary was both public and overwhelming. Consider the March 17, 2003, Der Spiegel Editorial warning that “for months now, Bush and Blair have been busy blowing up, exaggerating and deliberately over-interpreting intelligence information and rumors to justify war on Iraq,” or a September 30, 2002 McClatchy article – headlined: “War talk fogged by lingering questions; Threat Hussein poses is unclear to experts” – which detailed the reasons for serious skepticism about the pro-war case.
Or simply recall the various pre-war statements by the ex-Marine and U.N. weapons inspector for Iraq, Scott Ritter (“The truth of the matter is that Iraq has not been shown to possess weapons of mass destruction, either in terms of having retained prohibited capability from the past, or by seeking to re-acquire such capability today”), or Howard Dean in his Drake speech (“Secretary Powell’s recent presentation at the UN showed the extent to which we have Iraq under an audio and visual microscope. Given that, I was impressed not by the vastness of evidence presented by the Secretary, but rather by its sketchiness”). All of that, too, was brushed aside by government officials and suppressed and even mocked by most of the American media, all of whom were determined to allow nothing to impede the march to war. Rather than take responsibility for their failings, they instead insist – as Burns did today – that they could not have known.
But like the departing wife says, it’s not your fault really – it’s no one’s fault, so let’s move on. Isn’t it pretty to think so?
That’s the last line of the famous Hemingway novel – a sardonic but heartbreaking reply to someone who thinks certain quite impossible relationships are possible. The line is delivered with infinite sadness. And that was Obama’s speech on the end of the Iraq War. There’s no way to say it nicely. You move on.