The last US combat convoy left Iraq on Thursday, rather some time after George W. Bush declared an end to combat operations in Iraq in May, 2003.
Of course, this flat statement is not entirely accurate. The remaining 50,000 troops are viewed as trainers and logistics support to the Iraqi government. But they include special operations units, helicopter gunship crews, and other war fighters who are still going to be engaged in combat but will not be categorized as being in Iraq for that purpose. Iraq has no air force to speak of, and the US will be providing the air support until at least 2018.
But it would be wrong to see Thursday’s landmark as meaningless. It is a little bit immature to demand an all or nothing military situation. What Obama has done is stay true to US commitment to get combat units out by September 1. That should reassure Iraqis– and Arabs and Muslims in general — about US intentions.
That consideration is the true significance of Thursday’s last convoy. It is a symbol of a turnaround in US policy, a repudiation of the Bush administration doctrine of preemptive war. “Preemptive war” is a euphemism for the rehabilitation of aggressive war, which the world community attempted to abolish in the United Nations charter. While many blame Obama for escalating the Afghanistan War, that war at least grew out of the al-Qaeda attack on US soil, which was planned out in Khost and Qandahar, and it has the backing of the UN and of NATO, which invoked article 5 of its charter (an attack on one is an attack on all).
In contrast, the Iraq War was virtually without legal foundation. In the United Nations order, there are only two legitimate preconditions for going to war. One is clear self-defense, in response to an aggressive attack. (The Gulf War, responding to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, is a case in point). The other is authorization by the UN Security Council. But W. had neither precondition on his side when he invaded Iraq, and so he acted lawlessly, as Obama saw clearly at the time.
The US Republican Party has increasingly become the party of fear. Shock and awe was designed to scare the international community. At home, the party sought to rule on behalf of the super-wealthy and of White nationalists and the Christian Right by making the public afraid– of terrorism, of Muslims, implicitly of minorities. Fear as a tool of statecraft has no place in an Enlightenment republic.
The US has fought aggressive wars before, but none so starkly illegal as Iraq. Saying it was wrong and illegal is not the same thing as saying that no good was accomplished. Reality is complex. The Saddam Hussein regime was brutal and even at times genocidal. In principle, the regime could have been removed by the UN Security Council under the Genocide Convention. But the Bush administration did not pursue the war as an element of international legality or legitimate institutions. It pursued the war as a means of undermining the UN and international law, and asserting the extra-legal prerogatives of the then world’s sole superpower.
Bush’s Mesopotamian folly contributed, along with his massive deregulation and favoritism, to a profound weakening of the United States. Rather than underscoring the US unilateral hyperpower, the war demonstrated that the US was bogged down in a quagmire and challengers such as Iran and Venezuela could now thumb their noses at the US.
Obama’s faithfulness to the US self-imposed withdrawal timetable is intended as a return to legality and a repudiation of aggressive unilateralism. Iraq will limp along, wounded, with 4 million displaced persons, a missing middle class, and victims of violence or terrorism or US torture centers thick on the ground. Obama’s withdrawal is an act of contrition that can begin the process of repairing relations between the US and the Arab world, a world that increasingly views the Obama administration as a disappointment because of its failure to follow through on pledges such as the two-state solution in Israel/Palestine.
That Obama’s big achievement in the Middle East should be simply keeping to the withdrawal timetable for Iraq suggests the impasses the US faces in the Middle East, and is unexpected. But it is a significant achievement that many doubted he would attain.