Iraq, We Hardly Knew Ye

See ya! Good luck cleaning up our mess!

On November 14th, months after combat operations officially ended and two weeks before he was scheduled to ship out, 23-year-old Army Spec. David Emanuel Hickman rolled over an improvised explosive device while traveling through Baghdad in a convoy of military vehicles and became the last U.S. service member to die on active duty in Iraq.

The distinction places him in the company of U.S. Marines Charles McMahon and Darwin Lee Judge—who were killed during a rocket attack on Tân Sơn Nhứt Airport during the American evacuation of Saigon—and U.S. Army Sergeant Anthony J. Marchione—a photographer’s assistant who was fatally wounded while taking aerial pictures of Tokyo three days after Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender of Japan at the end of World War II. Not a single one of these “last casualties” was over the age of 23.

The chilling sadness that attends their deaths is hard to shake. It’s not that they are any more tragic than casualties that occur in the beginning, or the middle, of a conflict; there is no monopoly on tragedy. Yet more than the others, I think, their deaths underscore the capricious nature of war and the utter senselessness of the violence levied upon young people by the whims of their elders.

Last weekend, nearly nine years after the first American troops crossed the Kuwaiti border and began engaging Saddam Hussein’s determined—but militarily inferior—Republican Guards, the last convoy of GI’s retraced their steps through the cold desert night and brought to a close the most controversial chapter of American foreign policy since the war in Vietnam.

In practice, Iraq was a myopic endeavor characterized by overconfidence, cultural naivete and strategic blundering. But while it’s easy to write off America’s futile efforts there to the hubris of a handful of men engaged in selective intelligence gathering and, in some cases, outright falsification of evidence, blame also falls on the American people—not to mention the media—who, following the attacks of September 11th, dutifully sported their Old Glory lapel pins and channeled their collective anger into misplaced patriotism and abject gullibility.

The Bush administration may have dished out the Kool-Aid, but America happily drank.

Today, after more than 30 years of totalitarian rule and a decade of war, the Iraqi people control their own destiny. But that doesn’t mean Iraq is no longer our problem.

In 2002, during the run up to the invasion, Secretary of State Colin Powell famously remarked: “If you break it, you own it.” For better or worse, we now own Iraq; and what happens in our absence will determine whether history records our endeavor there as a noble, if bloody, exercise in democracy building or an adventure in arrogance masked as a liberation.

In spite of President Obama’s assurance that he was leaving behind a “self-reliant and democratic Iraq,” the early signs have not been encouraging. Before the last American flag was lowered, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was already moving to consolidate his hold on power. Within a day of the U.S. withdrawal, Iraq’s Shi’a-dominated central government issued an arrest warrant for vice-president Tariq al-Hashimi—a member of the Sunni minority and a founder of the pan-ethnic al-Iraqiya party—on charges he operated secret death squads that targeted political opponents. According to the Guardian newspaper, at least 30 people connected to al-Iraqiya have been arrested in recent weeks by security forces loyal to Maliki.

Al-Hashimi is currently taking refuge in the semi-autonomous northeastern region of Kurdistan, which is refusing to hand him over to Baghdad. The impasse threatens to upend the fragile power-sharing agreement between Iraq’s three main ethnic factions, and, in a worst-case scenario, drive the nation into a sectarian civil war followed by partition. (Just this morning newspapers are reporting on a wave of bombings that hit Baghdad during rush hour on Thursday, killing 65 people and wounding another 185.)

From his self-imposed exile, al-Hashimi had this to say to President Obama:

“I am puzzled by the statement of President Obama when he says we left a democratic Iraq and that the judiciary is independent and that there’s transparency and there’s no corruption. I am the vice-president addressing him today as my home is surrounded by tanks: What democracy are you speaking about Mr. Obama?”

Our supreme mistake, perhaps, was presuming we could impose democracy at all. Several years ago I spoke with Edward Peck—a career diplomat who served as chief of mission to Baghdad under President Carter and deputy director of the White House Task Force on Terrorism under Ronald Reagan. An early critic of the war, Peck told me that he knew from the very start the occupation of Iraq was doomed to failure because it applied an unrealistic, top-down approach to democratization.

“By definition, you cannot impose democracy; you cannot force people to make a free choice,” Peck said. “The essential ingredient in a functioning democracy is a willingness to accept the possibility of losing.”

According to Peck that flawed strategy was compounded by a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of Iraq. Americans entered the war largely ignorant of the centuries-old clan and sectarian divisions boiling beneath the surface, kept in check only by the weight of Saddam’s iron boot. Our failure to adequately appreciate the ethnic tensions accelerated Iraq’s decent into chaos. By the fall of 2006 coalition estimates placed the number of Iraqi civilians killed each month at more than 1,500 as ethnic violence between rival Sunni and Shi’a militias reached a pinnacle. The American invasion also opened the door to al-Qaeda extremism, which was virtually non-existent in Iraq prior to 2003, and exposed the country’s eastern flank to increased meddling from Iran, its one-time foe.

With America gone, it is now up to Iraqis to clean up the mess. One thing’s for sure, they’ll have their work cut out for them. We leave behind a country where nearly a quarter of the populace lives in poverty and a third are without jobs, a nation where one in five people under the age of 50 can’t read or write, and where access to the most basic services—electricity, sanitation, health care—is tenuous, if it exists at all. A poll released this week by Zogby International finds that less than a third of Iraqis think they are better off today than they were before the war and 60 percent worry that their country will descend into civil war and face partition.

Meanwhile, for our sacrifice, Americans are left with a giant question mark in the middle of one of the most volatile regions on earth. I don’t know about you but I think 4,474 dead Americans and roughly a trillion dollars should have bought us a little more.

Perhaps the most we can ask for as a nation is that we learn from the mistakes we made in Iraq, and more importantly, the ones we made in the months leading up to the invasion. I’m reminded of something Senator Bob Casey told me in 2009, when I interviewed him the eve of the six-year anniversary of the invasion:

“One of the real lessons I hope we’ve learned as a country … is that we’ve got to extend any intelligence that we get to really significant and extensive scrutiny … Because what happened last time is not just that you had intelligence that was questionable … but you also had people in power who, in my judgment, were misusing or exaggerating that intelligence for political purposes. We can’t have that again.”

Let’s promise each other we’ll keep that in mind the next time we’re offered Kool-Aid.