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President Obama Gives Speech On Iraq War: Now the Report Card

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President Barack Obama formally ended the U.S. combat role in Iraq after seven long years of bloodshed, declaring firmly in a speech Tuesday night: "It's time to turn the page.  The last U.S. combat troops actually left Iraq early last Thursday morning.  Here, President Obama kept a campaign pledge; upon taking office, President Barack Obama vowed to withdraw U.S. forces and later set an Aug. 31 deadline for U.S. forces to pack up and leave.  

In spite of the drawdown of troops in Iraq, the president made clear that the United States is not backing away from its global responsibilities. He vowed to maintain "the finest fighting force that the world has ever known,'' and said the United States will defeat al-Qaeda in the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Moreover, Fifty thousand U.S. troops (down from a peak of 175,000) are expected to remain in Iraq until the end of 2011, playing a non-combat and training role. 

Mission accomplished?  

First, let’s recall the reasons for the Iraq commitment. Saddam Hussein and his brutal regime governed Iraq for decades. For twelve years, he blatantly defied binding U.N. resolutions. As a result, In October 2002, the House and Senate voted overwhelmingly to authorize force against Iraq. In November 2002, the U.N. Security Council adopted a unanimous resolution offering Saddam “a final opportunity” to comply with disarmament. He posed a threat to its neighbors, especially Kuwait and the Kurds in the north part of his country who suffered from his chemical weapons.  More reasons include: The belief—shared by the Clinton and Bush Administrations and intelligence services world-wide—that he was armed with weapons of mass destruction, the complete corruption of the U.N. sanctions regime designed to contain him, and the fact that he intended to restart his WMD programs once the sanctions had collapsed. Even ex-British PM Tony Blair suggested that removing Saddam was for the best of the region, despite the lack of evidence confirming Saddam’s weapon programs.  

In light of this historic speech and troop withdraw, I’ve decided to evaluate the U.S. invasion and subsequentobama with troops rebuilding of Iraq from 2003 till now using four benchmarks that are each given a grade. I will also give a final grade.  

Benchmark #1: Uncover Saddam’s WMD 

In the build up to the 2003 war the New York Times published a number of stories claiming to prove that Iraq possessed WMD. One story in particular, written by Judith Miller helped persuade the American public that Iraq had WMD. In September 2002 she wrote about an intercepted shipment of aluminum tubes, which the NYT said were to be used to develop nuclear material. It is now clear that they could not be used for that purpose. The story was followed up with television appearances by Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice all pointing to the story as part of the basis for taking military action against Iraq.  

These stories all turned out to be false.  The failure to accurately assess Iraq’s WMD program (or lack of such a program) was a huge flop and a disgrace for news and intelligence agencies all over the world. 

Years later, Saddam admitted to his jailor, FBI Agent George Piro, that he destroyed his WMD program years before the 2003 invasion, but only kept the pretense of his WMD visible to look powerful to Iran. "It was very important for him to project that because that was what kept him, in his mind, in power. That capability kept the Iranians away. It kept them from reinvading Iraq," Piro said.  

It would have been most helpful if such intelligence had been uncovered BEFORE invading Iraq. Because without the WMD issue, the invasion of Iraq seems misguided at best and completely unjustified at worse. Even Bush advisor Karl Rove admits that if the administration known Iraq did not have WMD, the Unites States would not have invaded Iraq in 2003. 

Grade F 

Benchmark #2: Destroy Saddam’s Baath Party and the Iraqi Army 

This was the immediate goal of the U.S. military in 2003. Both the Baath Party and Saddam’s army were destroyed in about two weeks. Saddam’s heirs–to-be, his two sons, were killed in a raid in July 2003. A few months later, Saddam was captured, put on trial and eventually executed.   

The swift efficiency of the destruction of the Baath regime and the Iraq army would have consequences, however. Quickly, members of the Baath Party dissolved and began a counterinsurgency that would prove to be difficult for the U.S. and allied forces to contain. Critics argued that allied forces did not have enough “boots on the ground” to provide stability in the absence of the Iraqi army or the Baath Party.   

Grade: A- 

Benchmark #3: Economic and Quality of Life Indicators 

Seven years after the invasion, the reconstruction of Iraq has taken longer and cost more than initial estimates, but U.S. officials say money spent training Iraqi security forces has started to show results and has helped protect American investments. During the last seven years, significant improvements have been experienced to the everyday lives of Iraqi citizens. The nonpartisan Brookings Institution offers some of the details: 

  • With the troops leading the way, the U.S. has built 140 new hospitals and health care centers, a new electrical grid, an expanded water-delivery system and scores of schools free from Baathist indoctrination.
  • There were 833,000 telephone subscribers in Saddam’s Iraq; there are 20.8 million today—19.5 million of them cellular.
  • There were 4,500 Internet users under Saddam; there are 1.6 million today.
  • Almost six in 10—58 percent—of Iraqis say things are good or quite good; 84 percent say security is good in their area; 78 percent say crime protection is good in their area; 74 percent say freedom of movement is good in their area; 59 percent feel very safe in their neighborhood; 61 percent have confidence in the Iraqi government; 64 percent want Iraq to remain a democracy.
  • Iraq rates fourth in the region in political freedom, just behind Israel, Lebanon and Morocco.
  • Iraq’s GDP has grown from $20 billion in 2002 to $60.9 billion.
  • Iraq is producing 2.41 million barrels of oil per day (almost at pre-2003 levels) and exporting 1.88 million barrels per day (above pre-2003 levels).

 

Democracy is alive in Iraq, and its people are embracing some of its most cherished freedoms-- the right to protest. One tragedy serves as reminder of this.  

After an insurgent attack in the Iraqi city Ramadi, about 100 families of slain victims gathered in an auditorium to receive packages of food from the local government. 

"We don't want food," said Nooriya Khalaf, 39, pointing dismissively at the small bags with rice. "We want jobs." Complaints became more vocal; women rushed the stage and gathered around a police chief, shouting complaints at him.

Under Saddam Hussein, Khalaf and others may have been visited by the secret police for their remarks and then never seen again. Today, a police chief is berated, and no one fears for his or her lives.

Yet many Iraqis are not pleased with life. Unemployment is 35%, according to Iraq's development ministry. Electricity is spotty. Terrorist bombings are almost a daily event. Sunni Arabs, Shiites and Kurds are still arguing over who should be prime minister nearly six months after parliamentary elections were held.

This takes me to the last benchmark.

Grade: C+ 

Benchmark #4: Create a Modern, Stable, Democratic Government in Iraq 

Seven years later, however, Iraq still does not yet have a stable government. The lack of that government is what puts the current strategy in jeopardy. Violent militant groups are seeking to fill the vacuum created by Iraq's stalled political process amid a drastic reduction of United States troops based in the country. The incidents have come against a backdrop of prolonged disagreement between the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, and his principal rival, Iyad Allawi, over who should form the next government following the March parliamentary elections.  

I continue to be perplexed as to why the Iraqis chose a parliamentary system of government. Even in established western democracies, it can be difficult to form stable, long lasting governments. The Iraqis would have been far better advised to select a direct election system where the person who receives the most votes is declared the winner. Period.  

Overall violence has ebbed from the peak of sectarian warfare in 2006/07, just before the “Surge” occurred, but insurgent attacks have been increasing lately--the rise in deaths coinciding with the drawdown of U.S. troops.  

So was the surge effective in giving Iraq a chance to build its government? If some conservatives want to claim (incorrectly) that the surge stabilized Iraq to the point that civil war is impossible, their liberal counterparts try to insist (equally incorrectly) that the change in U.S. tactics and strategy in 2007-2008 had no impact on Iraq's politics whatsoever. 

Partisans will debate the impact of the surge for years to come, and historians will take up the fight thereafter. However, Iraqi politics are fundamentally different today than they were in 2006. The nation's political leaders have been forced to embrace democracy -- in many cases very grudgingly, but embrace it they have. Party leaders no longer scheme to kill their rivals, but to outvote them. They can no longer intimidate voters; they have to persuade them. And the smart ones have figured out that they must deliver what their constituents want, namely, effective governance, jobs, and services such as electricity and clean water. 

Yes, Iraqi politics remain deadlocked and deeply dysfunctional, and yes, long-term stability and short-term economic needs depend on further political progress. But it is now possible to imagine Iraq muddling on toward real peace, even prosperity -- if it gets the right breaks and a fair amount of continuing help from the United States, the United Nations, and its neighbors. 

Grade: C 

Overall Grade (Was The War Worth the Cost?) 

Before giving a final grade, here are some more numbers to ponder. 

Here is another little known fact: Obama’s stimulus program actually cost more than the Iraq war. 
 

After about 750 billion dollars, more than 4,400 American military deaths and at least 100,000 Iraqi civilian deaths and perhaps many more, was it worth it? Did toppling a dictator and nursing a fledgling if flawed democracy make a difference? And did the United States salvage credibility by sticking it out and finally stabilizing Iraq even if not winning the clear-cut victory originally envisioned? 

“We can take a certain measure of satisfaction from the success in Iraq,” L. Paul Bremer III, the former Iraqi occupation administrator, said in an interview. “It’s not a complete success yet, obviously, but building democracy takes time.”  He added that, “a successful Arab-Muslim democracy basically puts the lie to the Islamic extremists” who maintain that democracy is anathema to Islam and advocate a harsh form of rule. 

Going forward, America's involvement in Iraq will be much reduced, but the need for a U.S. presence will endure for many years. Iraq has demonstrated great potential, but at this point it is only potential. The country still holds great peril as well. Will the region be plagued again by sectarian violence like in 2005?  Without the support of the United States, will Iran meddle with the new democracy? Iran sees Iraq as a place for countering American influence in the region; consequently, Iran will never allow Iraq to develop into a stable democracy that could become a powerful adversary to it – especially one whose armed forces are armed and trained by the United States.  

For these reasons, President Obama was right to also warn that the United States will need to remain deeply involved in Iraq and will probably face casualties there in the years to come, regardless of how we label our mission. 

Overall Grade: I (Incomplete)

Contact Erik Uliasz at euliasz@philly2philly.com