This week, the last U.S. combat troops left Iraq. After more than eight years of fighting an ill-conceived, inexcusably prolonged war made more devastating by official ineptitude and hubris, America's soldiers are coming home for Christmas. The nation that welcomes them back honors their sacrifice and the courage with which they served their country.
Yet it may be years before we can fully assess the sacrifice our men and women in uniform made during America's longest and most unpopular war since Vietnam. A total of 1.5 million U.S. troops have served in Iraq since 2003, and the cost of the war has been staggering: Nearly 4,500 dead, some 32,000 wounded and $1 trillion from the federal treasury that added to the national debt and weakened our ability to respond to the current recession. On the Iraqi side, casualties numbered in the hundreds of thousands.
All this for the creation of an Iraqi state that remains at best politically fragile, deeply divided and threatened internally and externally by violent sectarian conflict and the machinations of Iranian mullahs determined to reduce it to the status of a vassal of Tehran.
The weak and fractious government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki remains far from fulfilling America's early hopes that Iraq would become a seed of democracy in a region dominated by autocrats. It has not even been able to restore electricity in Iraqi homes for more than a few hours a day, let alone rebuild the country's shattered infrastructure, ramp oil production back up to prewar levels or provide a model of stable, democratic self-governance for the region.
True, the hated Saddam Hussein and his brutal dictatorship are gone. But the threat from his arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, the ostensible justification for the war, turned out to be wholly non-existent. Iraq had no nuclear, chemical or biological weapons nor any prospects for building them at the time of the invasion.
The George W. Bush administration, which recklessly played on public fears of an Iraqi bomb to rationalize its war policy, never developed a plan for governing post-Saddam Iraq. After its initial "shock and awe" campaign routed Hussein's forces, Iraqis did not greet their would-be liberators with flowers, as predicted. Instead, the immediate aftermath of the invasion saw widespread looting and the emergence of a vicious insurgency that precipitated the country's slide into chaos and full-blown civil war two years later.
Meanwhile, American attempts to bring the conflict under control were repeatedly frustrated by the errors and arrogance of policymakers in Washington. Paul Bremer, who served as President Bush's envoy overseeing the occupation in Iraq, abetted the country's disintegration when he unilaterally disbanded the Iraqi army, pushing thousands of heavily armed Sunni fighters into the arms of the insurgency.
That blunder was compounded by Mr. Bremer's insistence on fashioning a civilian government based on proportional representation of ethnic and sectarian blocs. That virtually guaranteed whatever parliament eventually emerged would be dominated by Islamist Shiite parties aligned with Iran, and that minority Sunnis, Kurds, Turkmens and secular parties would be marginalized.
America's reputation was sullied throughout the Arab world when the horrible abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison complex outside Baghdad became public. It was further damaged by the Bush administration's repugnant policy of waterboarding captured enemy fighters to extract information, and the equally indefensible practice of "extraordinary rendition," which sent captives to be tortured in friendly third countries known for their willingness to violate human rights.
And though American troops fought valiantly despite such missteps, in many cases performing acts of heroism and sacrifice well beyond the call of duty, they weren't always treated well by the country that sent them to war. For years, wounded veterans were housed under deplorable conditions in the old Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital in Washington until a public outcry forced its closure. The Army was also slow to acknowledge the needs of veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and the effects of repeated concussions suffered on the battlefield. The mishandling of soldiers' remains at Arlington National Cemetery and elsewhere was a deplorable insult to grieving families.
President Barack Obama came into office on a pledge to end the Iraq War in his first term. Despite criticism in Congress and from Republicans on the presidential campaign trail — who say the U.S. should have insisted on keeping thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq past the date negotiated with the Bush administration for an end to America's involvement there — the president was right to stick to his promise.
For all the problems Iraq faces, it must now stand on its own, and its people should be given the chance to try to make their new yet imperfect democracy work. We can't fight their battles for them anymore, or dictate what kind of society they should build. Our combat role there has ended, even though thousands of U.S. private contractors, aid workers and diplomats will remain in the country to provide economic and technical assistance.
Given the uprisings in the Arab world this year that have toppled authoritarian rulers from Tunisia to Egypt to Libya, it's tempting to speculate whether the Iraqi people might have overthrown Saddam Hussein on their own, without involving any American forces. Such questions can never be answered, of course, and the outcome of those revolutions is still far from certain. But it's indisputable that today's Middle East is a vastly different place from what it was at the time of the 2003 invasion. Whether it is better or worse, history will have to judge. For now, we can only rejoice in the safe return of our troops this Christmas season and offer our prayers for a brighter future for the people of Iraq.