By Jules Witcover
6:00 AM EST, December 16, 2011
—When President Barack Obama went to Fort Bragg the other day to proclaim the end of the nearly nine-year war in Iraq, it was hardly what you would call a traditional victory lap. There was no wild V-I Day to match the V-E and V-J Days that kicked off nationwide jubilation at the end of World War II.
The most Mr. Obama could proclaim was that America wished a "welcome home" to the last of the 1.5 million American troops who had served in what he once described as a "dumb war." He was making good in a sense on the pledge he made as a presidential candidate in 2008 to extricate America from it.
In so doing, he acknowledged the Iraq he was leaving behind "is not a perfect place," but he declared it is now "a sovereign, stable and self-reliant" state, a conclusion that only the future can validate.
The White House visit of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was not an occasion, either, for flag flying and parades. It came only after a breakdown in U.S. efforts to win permission to leave some American forces there for security and training purposes.
The wind-down was not, to be sure, like the humiliating forced pullout of the end of the Vietnam War, with frantic evacuation by helicopter of the U.S. embassy in Saigon. But there certainly was an element of pulling in the welcome mat, after years of accommodation to the American presence in Iraq.
The celebratory tribute to the troops at Fort Bragg, many of whom had returned recently from the last of several tours in Iraq, was certainly in order. All those present and the thousands of others who also served there were part of a voluntary American military, unlike many of the Vietnam-era draftees, who had no choice.
Nor was there ever a protest at home against the American involvement in Iraq that came close to the chaos in the streets that marked the U.S. engagement in Vietnam. Through no fault of their own, many Vietnam veterans came home to a misguided stigma from war protesters, who confused those who had to fight the war with those who orchestrated and persevered in it.
Yet, despite Mr. Obama's noble efforts to find a pony in the pile of manure that was the wrongheaded invasion of Iraq, the singular cause for celebrating the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq is that the nightmare may at last be over.
The man who started it all, now in quiet retirement in Texas, may be best remembered for that premature banner declaring "Mission Accomplished" flying over this head on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln in 2003, when it hadn't been accomplished at all. Or maybe he will be remembered for those weapons of mass destruction he said were in Iraq — justifying the invasion — but were not.
A good argument can be made as well that had George W. Bush and his merry band of Vulcans never blundered into the war of choice in Iraq before finishing off the warranted one in Afghanistan, the United States would not still be slogging to an end in that military commitment there.
In all this, President Obama has been guilty of his own share of dissembling on the wars, to the chagrin of voters who saw him as a shining knight leading America out of the folly of the essentially go-it-alone foreign policy he inherited. To them, it has taken Mr. Obama much too long to do so, particularly after having bought into the generals' call for a troop surge in Afghanistan.
However, in Libya, he did turn a corner in limiting U.S. involvement in a true collective action of the sort that brought the allied West through the perils of the long Cold War. Belittled as "leading from behind," Mr. Obama avoided the kind of nation building that produced an Iraq of questionable stability and reliability to American interests.
There is cause for relief, if not wild celebration, that the U.S. military role in Iraq apparently is ending. But it never should have happened as it did in the first place.
Jules Witcover's latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is email@example.com.
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