Most Americans think the war in Iraq is over, or should be over, or will be over very soon. Whether we won or lost is less certain and has already become the subject of a debate that will grow more intense over the next few years. One side of this debate is setting up the new president to bear the full blame just in case things should unravel under his administration—a preemptive “Who lost Iraq?” war. According to Charles Krauthammer, writing in the Washington Post just before the inauguration, President Obama “will be loath to jeopardize the remarkable turnaround in American fortunes in Iraq. Obama opposed the war. But the war is all but over. What remains is an Iraq turned from aggressive, hostile power in the heart of the Middle East to an emerging democracy openly allied with the United States. No president would want to be responsible for undoing that success.” In other words, Iraq is looking so good that Obama can only screw it up. In April 2003, just before the fall of Baghdad, Thomas Friedman wrote a New York Times column titled “Hold Your Applause.” A few weeks later, at an NBA basketball game, Friedman ran into Krauthammer, who smirked, “Still holding your applause?” Six years later, it’s apparently safe to applaud, again—which only proves that the partisan wishful thinking that did so much harm before the invasion and during the early years of the war has re-emerged undaunted, just in time to fix Barack Obama in its sights.
On the other side, Obama’s campaign pledge to have combat troops out in sixteen months has become an article of faith that can be converted into a stick. “We have no reason to think Obama’s backed off his campaign promises on a timeline to end the war,” Eli Pariser of Moveon.org told the Times soon after the inauguration. Medea Benjamin, of Code Pink, wrote in USA Today, “The American people want our troops out. The best reflection of this is that they elected Barack Obama to lead us out of Iraq….The presence of U.S. troops ensures ongoing violence by attracting armed opposition and postpones the day of reckoning among Iraqi factions.”
Two things should be clear by now. The first is that American troops, while never popular among Iraqis, have lately been the only force that could reduce violence enough to give Iraqi factions a chance to meet their day of political reckoning. The winter provincial elections, which took place almost without violence, were the first in which Iraqis were able to vote for normal things—services, security, clean government—instead of for identity-group power in a zero-sum death struggle. The second is that no one can be sure whether or not Iraq will plunge back into apocalyptic levels of violence, and that, after so many years of killing in Iraq and foolishness in Washington, nothing that can be called victory is possible. To speak of winning is obscene—which is perhaps one reason why General David Petraeus a...
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