Tomgram: Engelhardt, Lessons from Lost Wars in 2012

Tom Engelhardt writes at Tomdispatch.com:

“It was to be the war that would establish empire as an American fact.  It would result in a thousand-year Pax Americana.  It was to be “mission accomplished” all the way.  And then, of course, it wasn’t.  And then, almost nine dismal years later, it was over (sorta)…

It was the Iraq War, and we were the uninvited guests who didn’t want to go home.  To the last second, despite President Obama’s repeated promise that all American troops were leaving, despite an agreement the Iraqi government had signed with George W. Bush’s administration in 2008, America’s military commanders continued to lobby and Washington continued to negotiate for 10,000 to 20,000 U.S. troops to remain in-country as advisors and trainers.

Only when the Iraqis simply refused to guarantee those troops immunity from local law did the last Americans begin to cross the border into Kuwait.  It was only then that our top officials began to hail the thing they had never wanted, the end of the American military presence in Iraq, as marking an era of “accomplishment.”  They also began praising their own “decision” to leave as a triumph, and proclaimed that the troops were departing with — as the president put it — “their heads held high.”

In a final flag-lowering ceremony in Baghdad, clearly meant for U.S. domestic consumption and well attended by the American press corps but not by Iraqi officials or the local media, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta spoke glowingly of having achieved “ultimate success.”  He assured the departing troops that they had been a “driving force for remarkable progress” and that they could proudly leave the country “secure in knowing that your sacrifice has helped the Iraqi people begin a new chapter in history, free from tyranny and full of hope for prosperity and peace.”  Later on his trip to the Middle East, speaking of the human cost of the war, he added, “I think the price has been worth it.”

And then the last of those troops really did “come home” — if you define “home” broadly enough to include not just bases in the U.S. but also garrisons in Kuwait, elsewhere in the Persian Gulf, and sooner or later in Afghanistan.

On December 14th at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the president and his wife gave returning war veterans from the 82nd Airborne Division and other units a rousing welcome.  With some in picturesque maroon berets, they picturesquely hooahed the man who had once called their war “dumb.” Undoubtedly looking toward his 2012 campaign, President Obama, too, now spoke stirringly of “success” in Iraq, of “gains,” of his pride in the troops, of the country’s “gratitude” to them, of the spectacular accomplishments achieved as well as the hard times endured by “the finest fighting force in the history of the world,” and of the sacrifices made by our “wounded warriors” and “fallen heroes.”

He praised “an extraordinary achievement nine years in the making,” framing their departure this way: “Indeed, everything that American troops have done in Iraq — all the fighting and all the dying, the bleeding and the building, and the training and the partnering — all of it has led to this moment of success… [W]e’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people.”

And these themes — including the “gains” and the “successes,” as well as the pride and gratitude, which Americans were assumed to feel for the troops — were picked up by the media and various pundits.  At the same time, other news reports were highlighting the possibility that Iraq was descending into a new sectarian hell, fueled by an American-built but largely Shiite military, in a land in which oil revenues barely exceeded the levels of the Saddam Hussein era, in a capital city which still had only a few hours of electricity a day, and that was promptly hit by a string of bombings and suicide attacks from an al-Qaeda affiliated group (nonexistent before the invasion of 2003), even as the influence of Iran grew and Washington quietly fretted.

A Consumer Society at War

It’s true that, if you were looking for low-rent victories in a near trillion-dollar war, this time, as various reporters and pundits pointed out, U.S. diplomats weren’t rushing for the last helicopter off an embassy roof amid chaos and burning barrels of dollars.  In other words, it wasn’t Vietnam and, as everyone knew, that was a defeat.  In fact, as other articles pointed out, our — as no fitting word has been found for it, let’s go with — withdrawal was a magnificent feat of reverse engineering, worthy of a force that was a nonpareil on the planet….”

Read the whole thing.

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