Iraq Mission Shifts, Nobody Cares

America's mission in Iraq is shifting from an active combat role to a smaller security presence. But the war that gripped our attention for years is now off the radar screen.

Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times, via Associated Press  Lt. Col. Richard D. Heyward, left, of Illinois, and Sgt. Nick Wysong of Washington crossed southern Iraq last week with their unit of the Second Infantry Division.

Peter Baker of the NYT has a superb analysis of the war headlined “As Mission Shifts in Iraq, Risks Linger for Obama.” But, while the opening paragraphs talk about the banal politics, the meat of the essay is about where we are now.

The official transition from Operation Iraqi Freedom to Operation New Dawn is as much a change in labels as it is a change in mission. With violence far below its peak in 2006 and 2007, American forces have increasingly taken a back seat to the Iraqi security units they trained.

But after seven years of a war started by President George W. Bush on the basis of false intelligence, the desire for finality, and perhaps closure, has focused attention on this moment and provoked a fresh discussion in Washington about what it all has meant.

After hundreds of billions of 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?

“If we can’t have a victory parade, we at least ought to be able to make some definitive conclusions,” said Andrew J. Bacevich, a military specialist at Boston University who lost a son in Iraq and has written a new book, “Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War.” “And it just doesn’t seem that we are going to do so. We want to just move on, sadly.”

In part, that owes to the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, where Mr. Obama is sending more troops, as well as the fragile economy at home, where millions of Americans are looking for work. And so while his opposition to the Iraq war animated his early candidacy, it seems almost a secondary issue these days.

During a fund-raising speech in Ohio last week, for instance, Mr. Obama mentioned the Iraq transition only in passing. “We are keeping the promise I made when I began my campaign for the presidency: by the end of this month, we will have removed 100,000 troops from Iraq, and our combat mission will be over in Iraq,” he said, a line he later repeated at a fund-raiser in Miami.

As they mark the moment, Democrats generally make no mention of the troop buildup and strategy change ordered by Mr. Bush in 2007, which many credit with turning around the war and making it possible to end combat now. By the time Mr. Bush left office, he had sealed an agreement with Iraq to withdraw all American troops by the end of 2011. After taking office, Mr. Obama ordered an intermediary deadline of drawing down to 50,000 by the end of this month.

Mr. Bush showed up unannounced at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport earlier this month to greet troops returning from Iraq. While no news media were invited, video posted on YouTube by troop supporters showed him in casual clothes shaking hands and posing for pictures with troops as they entered the terminal one by one.

Mr. Bush has declined to discuss the mission change, but former advisers see it as a validation that after all the pain and the blood, Iraq may finally be in a better place, governed by a freer, more democratic system that could yet serve as a model in an otherwise largely authoritarian Middle East.  “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.

Stephen J. Hadley, who was Mr. Bush’s national security adviser, said the current transition was due to the surge ordered by the former president and opposed by Mr. Obama when he was a senator. But he said he was glad that Mr. Obama’s team “has gone through a transition” and that it seemed to be taking pride in accomplishments in Iraq. He said he hoped that the administration would see the task through.  “If they do, they can rightly claim some measure of credit, and I would be the first to give them credit,” Mr. Hadley said. “But they need to stay focused and stay engaged.”

That Obama is basically carrying out the timetable negotiated under his predecessor is simply the nature of peaceful transition in our system.   Few important. things are entirely the work of one president.    Historians will assign Bush some large amount of credit if things do work out well in Iraq, as they have Reagan for the way the Cold War ended, even though it happened on his successor’s watch.   But Obama and his team are steering the ship now and have to make countless decisions on implementing the transition.  So, they’ll get a fair amount of credit, too.

It is, however, interesting how little attention we’re paying to Iraq now, given how charged the issue was from the debates of 2002 all the way through the early part of the 2008 election.  As I’ve noted elsewhere,  I’ve been part of that national trend.  The thing that got me noticed on OTB seven-odd years ago was my coverage of the tail end of the Iraq War debate and its early years.  Discussion of the war was easily my most prolific subject for the first four years or so blogging.  But I’ve hardly paid attention the last 18 months to two years.

Essentially, it went from being an engaging story with a dramatic plot to a mere routine.  Following the so-called Surge — for a whole lot of reasons only tangentially connected to it — things got better. Instead of losing 800- or 900-plus soldiers a year, as we did from 2004 to 2007, we lost 314 in 2008, 149 in 2009, and 45 this year.

That’s a good thing! And, certainly, we’re drawing down to a much better outcome than any of us could have expected in 2006.  But, alas, at a much higher cost in blood and treasure and with a whole lot less Shining Example For The Region than we’d hoped in the giddy days of 2004.  So, we have less “news” to talk about but, at the same time, no “victory” to crow about.  Presumably, the reverse is true from the side of those who opposed the war: Things turned out better than we feared but there’s no steady stream of casualties to point to as vindication for how bad it all is.  And, of course, Bush is gone, removing the lightning rod.

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Iraq War, Middle East, The Presidency, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Brummagem Joe says:

    “That Obama is basically carrying out the timetable negotiated under his predecessor is simply the nature of peaceful transition in our system.”

    Perhaps you’d like to provide a link Jim to back up the claim that Bush had negotiated the departure of all combat troops from Iraq by the summer of 2010. Obama is liquidating, ahead of schedule, arguably the biggest debacle in the history of US foreign policy. We invaded the country under false pretences and promises that we were going to bring democracy to the middle east and stabilize the region. Instead it’s cost us the thick end of a trillion bucks, the deaths or maiming or nearly 35,000 Americans, the deaths and maimings of hundreds of the thousands of Iraqis, and what are we left with. A country that is politically paralysed, an ongoing low level insurgency that is still claiming about 200 Iraqi deaths a month (they obviously don’t matter much to you and the reason for the low level of US deaths is that we’ve largely departed the streets of Iraq). When we finally leave the whole thing could easily escalate into a civil war with the unintended consequence that Iraq becomes a satellite of Iran. Your efforts to put lipstick on this pig are very touching but I doubt historians are ever going to assign Bush any credit for creating this mess.

  2. steve says:

    I make it a point to still try to read on what is going on in Iraq, but it is more difficult to find sources. At this point, I think it too early to decide if we have improved conditions in Iraq. If we leave and they have another strong man dictator 5-10 years later, it will look as though all was for nought. Time will tell, but I think Iran comes out ahead having lost Iraq as a hostile neighbor. The Kurds remain a huge issue. Sigh, the place is still a mess.


  3. Herb says:

    “Presumably, the reverse is true from the side of those who opposed the war: Things turned out better than we feared but there’s no steady stream of casualties to point to as vindication for how bad it all is. And, of course, Bush is gone, removing the lightning rod.”

    Hmmm…as a guy who opposed the war from the get-go, this doesn’t really line up with my feelings. I was never worried about a stream of casualties (even when my brother did a tour). I always knew that militarily, we’d kick their ass.

    I actually think that one of the reason’s why you see war fatigue on the anti side is that we lost the argument YEARS ago. We didn’t stop the war. Instead, we got bullied around, pilloried as traitors and defeatocrats, etc, even as the massive failures (no WMD? WTF?) became obvious.

    Besides, the anti-crowd never really cared about Iraq. Yeah, it was a horrible place under the thumb of a horrible dictator, but so what? We had other priorities, priorities that were a little closer to home, priorities not based on what ifs and worst case scenarios.

    So when you say “Nobody cares” you really mean “The hawks don’t care.” Makes me wonder if they ever did…

  4. john personna says:

    I did oppose the war in Iraq. While I though a moral case was weak, I thought it was easiest to build the anti-war case on practical grounds. I said the original plan failed tests of realpolitik and would yield blowback for generations. I think we saw the first part. Real politics on the ground in the region prevented that beacon of democracy. They prevent a real working democracy today. They prevent a peaceful civil society. The second pint, blowback, is still hanging a bit, but should we really expect all children in Iraq today to love America through their adulthood? No one has a grudge? No little Bin Ladens in the making?

    It’s a little odd therefore to see this sentence:

    Presumably, the reverse is true from the side of those who opposed the war: Things turned out better than we feared but there’s no steady stream of casualties to point to as vindication for how bad it all is.


  5. john personna says:

    BTW, the second part of the story was the machinations necessary by the Bush administration to make the war happen. Again, an odd sentence:

    And, of course, Bush is gone, removing the lightning rod.

    Sir, his administration was willing to subvert the democracy and lie us into war. To minimize his role as mere “lightening rod.”


  6. john personna says:

    (Basically thoughtful opposition to the Iraq war was right, and James’ late answer to them/us is that since it could have been even worse, we were wrong.)

  7. Brummagem Joe says:

    “So when you say “Nobody cares” you really mean “The hawks don’t care.” Makes me wonder if they ever did…”

    For most of them it was a exercise in that American machismo much beloved of the conservative middle class. They are usually fairly ignorant of the complexities of situations but the exercise of military violence boosts their self importance. They love landing on aircraft carriers in GI Joe suits with boastful appendages. I seldom get very angry about politics but the Iraq nonsense was one of those occasions that called for it. This stupidity brought grief and misery to thousands of American homes, and tens of thousands of Iraqi ones. There are hundreds of thousands who are going to bear the physical and psychological scars for the rest of their lives and for what? The deposition of some tinpot dictator of which the world continues to have a plentiful supply.

  8. Jason says:

    I hate to wheel out the knee-jerk conservative talking point here, but here comes my dolly.

    No one cares because the face and the man associated with it is no longer in charge. Secondly, the media is no longer heavily invested in the coverage for the first reason.

    Iraq, as a news source, dried up shortly after inauguration. The major news outlets pulled out a while back. We didn’t think the coverage was actually about the war and the military did we? No, once the real story — and by that I mean Bush-43 — left the scene, the resources dried up and the media’s interest faded.

  9. steve says:

    “No, once the real story — and by that I mean Bush-43 — left the scene, the resources dried up and the media’s interest faded.”

    If 1000 troops were still being killed there, per year, you think it would be ignored? I dont.


  10. reid says:

    jp and BJ have summarized my feelings about Iraq. Good job, guys. Let’s hope our collective memory never whitewashes the faulty premises and motivations and huge costs involved, no matter what happens to Iraq.

    Jason, the idea that it was only about Bush seems pretty ridiculous. Other issues (little things like the economy) have come up, the situation in Iraq stabilized somewhat, the country is feeling burned out on the whole topic… Bush being gone has to be about reason #10 why we don’t hear as much about it. If things were to slide back to 2006 levels of violence, we’d certainly hear more in the news. Though, given we’ve pulled back so much, there isn’t the same level of human investment and therefore wouldn’t be the same grisly reports of IEDs and casualties.

  11. JKB says:

    Aw, just as it was about to “go gentle into that good night’ the Iraq war is revived. And judging by the response of some, with rage, rage against for the dying of the light.

    Of course, after this milestone, Iraq will again fade to the background until a surprised report of new and growing investment in a dynamic middle east economy. That is unless the whole thing falls apart and we start discussing whether Obama’s knee jerk change of combat troop withdrawal to a year early cause the failure. Unfortunately, for Obama, the former probably wouldn’t happen until after the 2012 election while the latter could arise as early as the new year.

  12. ponce says:

    “With violence far below its peak in 2006 and 2007,”

    During 2006 and 2007 about 60 Iraqi civilians a day were being killed in political violence.

    This month averages about 20 Iraqi civilians a day being killed.

    If 240 Americans were dying in political violence every day…would we consider that stable?

  13. Jason says:


    The fact that 1,000 troop aren’t being killed there is a story in and of itself. AKA, The Surge and the resolve of the Bush administration to right the ship, and hopefully give the Iraqis opportunity to form a thriving and prosperous democracy. That was a story as far back as the beginning of 07.

    Again, though, back to my earlier point. That wasn’t the story, nor in the interest of the media.


  14. An Interested Party says:

    “…a surprised report of new and growing investment in a dynamic middle east economy.”

    Talk about knee jerk…