As of July 1, all U.S. troops in Iraq were scheduled to have moved out of Iraqi cities, and most of them had done so. Those remaining in cities will serve as advisers and support resources for Iraqi security forces, who now have responsibility for maintaining a modicum of order in that still-troubled country.
(Nobody there or here seems to grasp that genuine order arises from the bottom up when people respect the dignity and rights of others, and that order imposed from the top down is always fragile.)
About 130,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq, mostly in encampments outside major cities, but the withdrawal from cities is intended to be a first step leading to complete withdrawal by the end of 2011. The invasion and occupation of Iraq is winding down. It is not too soon to begin assessing its impact on the United States and on the Middle East.
Certainly the primary justifications offered for invading a country that posed no immediate threat to the United States or to its neighbors evaporated quickly. Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator, but he did not have weapons of mass destruction nor was he on the verge of acquiring them. He was not a sponsor of the kind of jihadist terrorism that led to the attacks of 9/11 — indeed, most jihadists saw him as a target rather than an ally.
The justifications that emerged later — that by establishing a democratic regime in Iraq we could create a model that would inspire the rest of the Middle East and the Muslim world and change the balance of power to one less hostile to Israel and more friendly to the United States — has proven hollow as well. Iraq remains deeply divided along ethno/sectarian lines, and it is far from certain that it will evolve into a country that respects and balances the rights and claims of Sunni, Shia and Kurds. The increased violence of recent weeks may or may not erupt into de facto civil war, but the regime is far from a model or inspiration.
Assuming the U.S. abides by the Status of Forces Agreement negotiated in the waning days of the Bush administration, of which the withdrawal from cities is the first step, an unstated purpose of the invasion will also not be fulfilled. Some strategists saw the invasion as a way to establish permanent bases in Iraq, in the center of the Middle East, to make it easier to wield influence and project power in that part of the world. That’s unlikely to happen.
Instead, the destruction of the old regime in Iraq and the emergence of Shia Muslims, who were in the majority but suppressed by Saddam, as the dominant class, has increased the regional influence of Iran, also a Shia power (though Persian rather than Arab). A more powerful and ambitious Iran may prove a far greater danger than a Saddam-dominated Iraq ever did.
All that American treasure and American and Iraqi blood for — perhaps gains not yet realized, perhaps not much if any at all, perhaps making things worse? It’s possible.
As we assess the aftermath the experience should give us pause the next time a vocal group of leaders starts trumpeting the “necessity” of military action abroad.