Over seven years ago, former President George W. Bush announced that an assault on Iraq had begun. In his March 19, 2003 speech, he told a tale of the glorious future to come: ?My fellow citizens, the dangers to our country and the world will be overcome….We will bring freedom to others. And we will prevail.? President Obama?s speech last night, declaring that the war initiated that day was at an end, tacitly addressed the accuracy of those predictions.
To the first?that dangers would be overcome?Obama responded with a prediction of his own.
As we speak, al Qaeda continues to plot against us, and its leadership remains anchored in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan. We will disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda, while preventing Afghanistan from again serving as a base for terrorists.
John Bolton loudly argues that the safety of Americans requires a continued combat presence in Iraq; by diverting questions of security to Afghanistan, Obama demonstrated his disagreement (though, as CIA director Leon Panetta said in June, fewer than 100 al-Qaeda operatives remain in Afghanistan). Iraq?s security, he argued, could now be assured by Iraqis who ?have rejected sectarian war? and ?have no interest in endless destruction.?
Bush and his administration evoked the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with one seamless utterance: the War on Terror. Perhaps more than anyone else, Former Vice President Cheney is remembered for drawing fantastical and sinister connections between Saddam Hussein?s Ba?athist regime and the internationalist al-Qaeda network?and for later denying that he had ever made such claims. Obama has stopped using the phrase ?War on Terror,? and his rhetoric suggests more generally that he has no interest in speciously insinuating to Americans that an evil monolith spanning roughly from Algeria to Pakistan plots our destruction. But by bringing Afghanistan into his War-Is-Over Speech, he showed that the American invasion and occupation of Iraq did in fact affect the mission in Afghanistan: namely, by shifting attention and effort away from the latter, allowing its people to fester for years in a purgatorial state, mostly forgotten. So, to Bush?s claim that dangers would be overcome, Obama replied, ?Not yet, but they will be.? We might wonder: what reasons do we have to think Obama?s prediction is any more likely of coming true than Bush?s?
What of the second-to last promise?have we yet ?[brought] freedom to others?? Iraq now has democratic institutions and a native force at least somewhat equipped to defend and uphold them. But the single time Obama invoked ?freedom? last night, it was once again in terms of future fulfillment. ?As the leader of the free world, America will do more than just defeat on the battlefield those who offer hatred and destruction?we will also lead among those who are willing to work together to expand freedom and opportunity for all people.? While the chaos of 2006 and 2007 has now diminished to the low growl of random attacks and pervasive fear, violence continues?one week ago, coordinated attacks in thirteen cities across the country killed nearly sixty Iraqis. And as for their primary institution of political freedom, the Council of Representatives of Iraq, its seat of power has been glaringly empty for six months?an emptiness not lost on Obama last night: ?I encourage Iraq?s leaders to move forward with a sense of urgency to form an inclusive government that is just, representative, and accountable to the Iraqi people.? To Bush?s statement that we would bring freedom to others, Obama offered nothing but more good faith and hope: ?Iraq has the opportunity to embrace a new destiny,? and when at some point a government does form there, ?the Iraqi people will have a strong partner in the United States.?
To some, the above assessments of Iraq?s problems might seem excessively grim. Despite lingering security issues, despite the failures of basic public services, despite the missing government, despite unresolved questions over oil in Kurdish territory, there are ways in which life is better in Iraq now. (I’m neither morally brave enough nor emotionally callous enough to weigh political freedom against the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead from violence since 2003 on Justice’s cosmic scales.) But Obama?s guarded answer to Bush?s final prediction??we will prevail??gets at the real reason why we should avoid celebrating the end of American combat operations in Iraq. True, Obama eloquently exalted American soldiers, as any president would:
Those Americans gave their lives for the values that have lived in the hearts of our people for over two centuries. Along with nearly 1.5 million Americans who have served in Iraq, they fought in a faraway place for people they never knew. They stared into the darkest of human creations?war?and helped the Iraqi people seek the light of peace.
But while praising troops for ?completing every mission they were given,? Obama avoided the chest-thumping terms we associate with the end of war. No victory, no winning, no prevailing. One enemy lay defeated, but many others arose in his place and still today draw blood from American troops and the Iraqi government. Today?s New York Times editorial on Obama?s speech thus reads, ?There was no victory to declare last night, and Mr. Obama was right not to try. If victory was ever possible in this war, it has not been won?? After the American withdrawal from Iraqi cities last summer, I made a similar point:
Is Iraq now a better place to live than it was before the U.S. occupation, and will it remain that way? These questions require the privileging of certain values over others: should we consider individual liberty, the strength of civil society, the smooth functioning of just political institutions, bodily safety, economic welfare, or something else, as the designator of victory? All of these are yet to be ensured, and they will most likely not be by the time the United States leaves Iraq altogether, either. It will be years after the military exit, long after the last American gun in Iraq has been fired, when we can begin to answer the question of victory and defeat in these domains.
Obama acknowledged the historical oddity and lack of emotional satisfaction at the end of our postmodern war, where the victory of Iraq (as currently configured) is a necessary condition for the victory of the United States. ?In an age without surrender ceremonies, we must earn victory through the success of our partners and the strength of our own nation.? Unsurprisingly, Abe Greenwald completely twists the meaning of Obama?s statement in his hastily composed and ridiculous reaction to Obama?s speech at Commentary:
Nations will never formally go to war again and will not get caught up in pre-21st-century anachronisms like ?victory? and ?surrender.? For Barack Obama, an old-fashioned victory is as quaint as a [sic] dual at twenty paces. This unjustified optimism is not a historically new phenomenon among academics and has invited exploitation by tyrants throughout the modern age….To wit: The single mention of the word ?victory? in a speech acknowledging the successful conclusion of a remarkable American military effort came in a bid to redefine the term as a universalist construct. If only the world?s bad actors would agree to do the same, this would prove to be a speech for the ages.
For those who believe that Obama?s speech neither invited future terrorist attacks nor demonstrated an intellectual?s disdain for all tradition, his restraint was a welcome nod to the uncertainties ahead. At any rate, it?s preferable to a jingoistic victory parade, made farcical by the actual Iraq: still divided and dangerous for Iraqis, still a question mark in the middle of the Middle East.