Barack Obama recorded another presidential first last night. He became the only president in American history to have opposed a war and then been given the responsibility to manage and, in his case, end that war.
The only historical parallel, I think, that comes close to what Obama signed on for is Dwight Eisenhower’s pledge during his 1952 race to “go to Korea” and end the fighting there. Ike, a military man to the soles of his feet, had been careful to steer clear of opposition to Harry Truman’s intervention in Korea. He did, however, question the conduct of the war.
It fell to Obama to declare the end to United States combat operations in Iraq last night in a somber, respectful speech from the Oval Office heavy with appropriate respect to the men and women who fought, died and were injured there. No “Mission Accomplished” in this speech, but more “this is what I promised to do.”
While the American people seem to have made their minds up about the war, the president’s political opponents seem intent on litigating the success of the Iraq effort post-2007 when George W. Bush and his generals shifted tactics and employed a “surge” counter insurgency approach to bringing something approximating peace to the ancient land. What seems to be missing at this Iraq moment, and perhaps can’t really be ascertained with any certainty, is what next and what lessons?
It has been sobering to read, in the context of American troops and treasure being devoted to Iraq, of the virtually permanent American presence – 30,000 troops – that remains in South Korea today 60 years after that war “ended.” Add to that reality the fact of no permanent Iraqi government in place, basic services in most of Iraq still wholly inadequate for a modern country, a jittery Iran blustering in the region, by even conservative estimates tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians dead and more injured and displaced, and there is still Afghanistan.
The American experience in Vietnam effectively ended in 1973 and as a country we have yet to come to closure on the meaning or lessons of that conflict. It will take, I suspect, just as long to sort out the Iraq experience.
What the war should tell us is something about the limits of American power. The American military, well trained, equipped and lead, could rather easily knock over a tin horn like Saddam. But the harder task, as most military folks well know, is to apply the soft touch of the different skills required for “nation building.” Are we done with Iraq? Hardly. And there is still Afghanistan.
As the fine historian and biographer, Jean Edward Smith – he’s written, among others, about FDR and U.S. Grant – noted last year: “Like President Obama, Eisenhower was an incrementalist who preferred to move gradually, often invisibly, within an existing policy framework. But on the question of war and peace, his views were categorical. He rejected the concept of limited war, and believed that American troops should never be sent into battle unless national survival was at stake.”
Eisenhower also said, having made the decision to seek peace in Korea, that wars have many costs: “Every gun that is fired,” he said in 1953, “every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed….”
History will render the ultimate verdict on whether it was worth 4,400 American lives, thousands of injured soldiers and billions in national treasure to reach a point where, at best, it can be said that Iraq has a very uncertain future.
History can, and often does, judge harshly.