Long ago things were dramatic – the announcement early in the morning of April 29, 1975 – the evacuation from Saigon by helicopter of the last of our diplomatic, military, and civilian personnel. That was named Frequent Wind – the largest helicopter evacuation in history. And on television everyone could see the desperation, hysterical crowds of Vietnamese scrambling for the limited spaces available. But there was nothing to be done. South Vietnam, as a functioning country, was doomed. President Ford had given a televised speech on April 23 – he simply declared an end to the Vietnam War and all United States aid. And what happened was what had to happen. And so Frequent Wind continued around the clock, as North Vietnamese tanks breached defenses on the outskirts of Saigon. And then, in the early morning hours of April 30, the last United States Marines evacuated the embassy by helicopter, as civilians overran the perimeter and poured into the grounds. Many of those were the workers who had been employed by the Americans. But the last helicopter has lifted off. They were on their own now. And on April 30, 1975, the Vietnam People’s Army troops overcame all remaining resistance in Saigon, taking all key buildings and installations, and then a tank crashed through the gates of the Independence Palace. And at 11:30 that morning, local time, the National Liberation Front flag was raised above the palace. President Duong Van Minh, in office for all of two days, surrendered. And that was that. It took one hundred sixteen years, but the Vietnamese had themselves a country. And we, like the French before us, were gone.
A friend had been there at the time – she was on the last Air France flight out of Saigon, to Cambodia. She was in her early twenties at the time and cannot forget that day – she and her parents watching it all disintegrate. And yes, they were French. As you might recall that was once French Indochina, formed in 1887 – and beginning in May 1941, the Viet Minh, a communist army led by Ho Chi Minh, began a revolt against French rule known as the First Indochina War. He finally won. So this was the end of a history much longer than our experience there. And eventually it was back to Paris for them, back home, up on Rue Lamarck in Montmartre. All things end. Sometimes things end dramatically. And now she lives out here in Los Angeles.
But sometimes things don’t end dramatically:
By declaring that the last American troops will leave Iraq by the end of the year, President Obama signaled the official close to one of the longest, most politically contentious wars in U.S. history – and the end to an American attempt to transform the Middle East with military might.
The soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines will leave behind a stumbling young democracy, still beset by sectarian violence and tilting closer to its neighbor, Iran, a bitter U.S. foe.
They will return home to a country that has largely turned inward to face its own economic problems, and which long ago lost heart in a war fought in the name of protecting the world from weapons of mass destruction that were never found.
So that’s it? Yes, that’s it. It’s over. Obama promised that the remaining forty thousand troops would be home for the holidays “fulfilling a campaign promise but also acceding to the reality of a depleted treasury and overwhelming American public opinion.”
In there was the inconvenient political fact that Iraq demanded an end to our presence there. But that’s okay, as in this particular assessment from David Cloud and Patrick McDonnell in the Los Angeles Times you get this:
The Iraq war will be remembered as a stubborn, shifting campaign to restructure a society that had been held together for decades through tyrannical force. It was set against an ever-dangerous landscape of remote-controlled bombs, unbearable heat and uncertain alliances. Iraq brought a new lexicon to American English: “war of choice,” “shock and awe,” “IED,” “coalition of the willing,” “surge.” It gave new meaning to the term “mission accomplished,” which was emblazoned on a banner behind President George W. Bush as he welcomed home a returning aircraft carrier in May 2003, six weeks after the war had begun and when victory seemed at hand.
More than eight years later, the war is ending after taking the lives of more than 4,400 American troops, most of them killed after the initial invasion.
And there are the tens of thousands injured – all the amputees and those suffering from battle trauma – not to mention at least one hundred thousand Iraqis dead, or maybe four times that many. And we spent almost a trillion dollars, in direct costs. The trailing costs – care for veterans and distortions to our economy – may end up triple that. And we are still in Afghanistan, the only conflict in American history to last longer than Iraq.
But this war is over – just a brief news conference, actually just an announcement with no allowance for questions. And there will be no Operation Frequent Wind – no desperate evacuation. We did what we did, the Iraqis asked us to leave, so we are leaving.
Of course for the last several months the Obama administration had been working hard to find a political formula with the Iraqi government that would keep at least a few thousand of our troops in the country. But they opposed granting immunity from prosecution for any Americans troops who would remain. And there’s this:
In Iraq, a war-weary population appears happy to see the United States leave. The most ardent opponents of a continued U.S. presence are the followers of the virulently anti-American cleric Muqtada Sadr, whose former Mahdi Army militiamen fought ferociously against U.S. troops in Baghdad’s Sadr City and elsewhere. But even some of Washington’s Kurdish allies say that U.S. troops have worn out their welcome.
It was time, and of course the politics were right:
The decision to proceed with complete withdrawal also reflected the White House’s own ambivalence about keeping forces in Iraq, which administration aides feared would be seen as a betrayal of Obama’s promise, during his 2008 presidential campaign, to end the conflict and withdraw American combat troops.
Obama alluded to that in announcing the decision at the White House: “I can report that, as promised, the rest of our troops in Iraq will come home by the end of the year,” the president said after a videoconference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki. “After nearly nine years, America’s war in Iraq will be over.”
Declaring that the “tide of war is receding,” Obama and other administration officials sought to portray the move as an honorable completion of a long and difficult mission and part of a broader shift away from direct U.S. military involvement not just in Iraq, but in Afghanistan and Libya as well.
And of course this was a day after the death of Gadhafi – things are turning our way and it’s a new world.
But Glenn Greenwald reminds us of the details here:
First, the troop withdrawal is required by an agreement which George W. Bush negotiated and entered into with Iraq and which was ratified by the Iraqi Parliament prior to Obama’s inauguration. Let’s listen to the White House itself today: “‘This deal was cut by the Bush administration, the agreement was always that at end of the year we would leave…’ an administration official said.”
As I said, it’s a good thing that this agreement is being adhered to, and one can reasonably argue that Obama’s campaign advocacy for the war’s end influenced the making of that agreement, but the Year End 2011 withdrawal date was agreed to by the Bush administration and codified by them in a binding agreement.
Second, the Obama administration has been working for months to persuade, pressure and cajole Iraq to allow U.S. troops to remain in that country beyond the deadline. The reason they’re being withdrawn isn’t because Obama insisted on this, but because he tried – but failed – to get out of this obligation.
And Greenwald adds this on why our troops are not staying:
The only reason they aren’t staying is because the Iraqi Government refused to agree that U.S. soldiers would be immunized if they commit serious crimes, such as gunning down Iraqis without cause. As we know, the U.S. is not and must never be subject to the rule of law when operating on foreign soil (and its government and owners must never be subject to the rule of law in any context). So Obama was willing (even desirous) to keep troops there, but the Iraqis refused to meet his demands…
So there will be talk of how our troops there would help preserve still-fragile security gains, as they say, and enable continued training of Iraqi forces, to prevent a resurgence of sectarian and ethnic violence and all that, and to serve as a deterrent to Iran. There will be talk of how we should stay. But we cannot stay. Iraq’s neighbor has sought influence there for years, supplying weapons and training to Shiite militant groups. Now they have it.
And there was talk – Mitt Romney said the pullout would “unnecessarily put at risk the victories that were won through the blood and sacrifice of thousands of American men and women.” But Republicans have to be careful – all polling for years has showed little or no support for a continuing troop presence there.
But that didn’t stop Lindsey Graham – “I respectfully disagree with President Obama. I feel all we have worked for, fought for, and sacrificed for is very much in jeopardy by today’s announcement. I hope I am wrong and the President is right, but I fear this decision has set in motion events that will come back to haunt our country.”
But officials said that more than four thousand contractors would remain in Baghdad – “to provide security to the large American Embassy in Baghdad and to consulates in the cities of Basra and Irbil.” And we have our giant embassy and the troops that guard that thing.
But this war had already ended:
Today, U.S. troops are virtually invisible on the streets of the Iraqi capital. American forces are mostly seen in heavily guarded convoys on the roads headed south, moving equipment out of the country as the massive withdrawal moves forward.
Iraq has proved to be difficult ground for democracy and has remained a defiant foe of Israel, despite hopes it might somehow emerge as a moderate voice in the Arab world. Once a major oil producer, it still does not generate enough energy to keep the lights on full-time, despite U.S. investments of billions of dollars in infrastructure and other projects. It is regularly ranked as one of the most corrupt nations on Earth.
The dream of some that Iraq could serve as a longtime base for U.S. forces in a strategic area of the world has likewise proved illusory.
But other than that, the Iraq War was a grand idea. It’s over. And perhaps none of you have a career military officer in the immediate family, but for those of us who do, what can you say? A job well done, and done bravely and honorably and intelligently – tour after tour after tour – you should be proud. God knows we all are proud of you. But now the job is done. And this may be the best we could hope for. What other, better outcome was possible?
But of course that’s a political question, and Kevin Drum rips into Mitt Romney on that:
Mitt Romney’s campaign strategy is fairly simple. He can’t afford to dive too far down the tea party rabbit hole because that would hurt his chances in the general election, but he still needs the tea party vote in the primaries. So instead of flat taxes and electrified fences, he tries to appease them with absurdly over-the-top criticisms of the Great Satan himself, Barack Obama.
And here is what Romney said in response to Obama’s announcement that all our troops would withdraw from Iraq by the end of the year:
President Obama’s astonishing failure to secure an orderly transition in Iraq has unnecessarily put at risk the victories that were won through the blood and sacrifice of thousands of American men and women. The unavoidable question is whether this decision is the result of a naked political calculation or simply sheer ineptitude in negotiations with the Iraqi government. The American people deserve to hear the recommendations that were made by our military commanders in Iraq.
Well, the naked political calculation was that instead of withdrawing American troops by the end of 2009, as he originally said he’d do, he agreed to follow the timeline negotiated by… George W. Bush in 2008. And talks over troop immunity failed because the agreement negotiated by – yes, George W. Bush in 2008 – cut off immunity at the end of 2011 and the Iraqi legislature flatly refused to consider extending it. And finally, the opinion of the military commanders in Iraq is, I’m pretty sure, adamantine: no immunity, no troops. Admiral Mike Mullen made this clear a couple of months ago when he – not Obama – insisted that troops would stay in Iraq only if they were (a) given immunity from local prosecution and (b) the immunity agreement was approved by Iraq’s parliament.
So Mitt is being a horse’s ass here.
Still, as a campaign strategy it’s not bad. And his decision not to try to out-wingnut the wingnuts was vindicated by Michele Bachmann’s statement, which said that not only should we have stayed in Iraq, but we should have “demanded that Iraq repay the full cost of liberating them given their rich oil revenues.”
Even Dick Cheney never went that far.
And Steve Benen piles on:
In 2008, Iraq and the United States agreed to a Status of Forces Agreement that was identical to the wishes of then-Sen. Barack Obama. Since then, President Obama has kept his promises, and gradually brought down U.S. troop levels. Today the White House announced the end of America’s military presence in the country, right on schedule.
Which is part is the “astonishing failure”? And why is it, exactly, that Romney believes the U.S. military presence should simply continue on, indefinitely?
And as for Romney saying that he’s concerned that “political calculations” were part of the decision making:
Think about that one – Mitt Romney, whose decision-making process generally involves sticking his finger in the air to see which way the winds are blowing, is accusing someone else of making “political calculations.”
If the Romney campaign was able to type that one up with a straight face, I’d be very impressed.
But the larger point to keep in mind is that Romney, while doing his best to pretend to understand international affairs, is frequently incoherent on the subject. Remember the time Romney told ABC News he would “set a deadline for bringing the troops home” from Iraq – but only if it’s a secret deadline? How about the time Romney, more than four years into the war in Iraq, said it’s “entirely possible” that Saddam Hussein hid weapons of mass destruction in Syria prior to the 2003 invasion? Or the time Romney pretended “Hezbollah and Hamas and al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood” were all the same thing? How about my personal favorite: the time Romney made the bizarre assertion that IAEA weapons inspectors were not allowed entry into Saddam Hussein’s Iraq?
Benen has all the links to all that if you want to drill down and verify all that. And Benen points out that it’s not just the Middle East, either, as last year, Romney argued against the New START nuclear treaty in an op-ed, and that led to Fred Kaplan’s withering assessment – “In 35 years of following debates over nuclear arms control, I have never seen anything quite as shabby, misleading and – let’s not mince words – thoroughly ignorant as Mitt Romney’s attack on the New START treaty.”
I’m not surprised Romney wants to weigh in on a major development, and feels the need to take cheap shots at the president today. But Romney is simply clueless. Maybe he should go enjoy a little quiet time while the grown-ups talk.
And Romney dishonors those who did the hard work well and bravely and honorably and intelligently – tour after tour after tour. This is not a time for shabby-thinking cheap shots. This may be the best we could hope for. What other, better outcome was possible?
And Steve Kornacki reminds us of another context:
Think back to the political world of five years ago. Iraq had spiraled out of control, the public had turned on George W. Bush once and for all, Republicans were poised for massive midterm losses, and Democrats were beginning to believe they’d take back the White House in 2008. Many of them were also still smarting from their decision to compromise in 2004, when they’d abandoned anti-war Howard Dean for John Kerry at the last minute, only to watch the “electable” Vietnam hero struggle and lose in the fall. As 2008 approached, they yearned for a clean break from the establishment thinking that had led so many of their party’s leaders (like Hillary Clinton) to sign off on the Iraq war.
And then there was Obama:
This is what made the idea of an Obama candidacy not crazy. He was less than two years removed from the Illinois legislature in the fall of 2006, but Democrats all across the country had fallen in love with him thanks to his ’04 convention speech. And, it turned out he’d actually spoken out against the pending invasion at a Chicago rally in the fall of 2002. A stirring speaker with an inspiring biography who was new to the national scene, untainted by years of floor votes and Washington compromises, and who was on the record showing the pre-Iraq wisdom that had eluded Clinton and most other prominent Democrats? Anti-war Democrats had found perhaps the only Democrat capable of knocking off Hillary in ’08. Iraq gave Obama’s campaign its purpose.
Of course, the world changed dramatically even during the campaign. Violence in Iraq ebbed, the media stopped paying attention, and then Wall Street melted down, creating the worst economic slump since the Depression. It’s the irony of the Obama story. The issue at the heart of his presidential campaign no longer felt quite so urgent to most Americans by the time he took office.
But it was urgent – end the stupid wars and fight the ones that should be fought, and forget brute massive force and Shock and Awe and all that crap – send a small team of SEAL guys to take out Osama bin Laden, use the drones to take out other key leaders and spokesmen, and in the case of Libya, pull the strings from behind the curtains as everyone joins in to rid the world of one more very bad guy. And above all, don’t dishonor and insult the troops by asking them to fight the war that you could, in the end, never quite explain.
So this war is over, without any drama at all. And now the real work begins.