WASHINGTON -- In his major foreign policy speech on Monday, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said the "costly gains made by our troops" in Iraq are now eroding due to President Barack Obama's "abrupt withdrawal."
That was largely the extent of his comments on a war many historians consider the most disastrous in modern times and the most significant foreign policy legacy of the last Republican president, George W. Bush.
Romney didn't elaborate on the "gains," nor did he address whether he thought the cost was appropriate -- $3 trillion in borrowed money, nearly 5,000 dead U.S. servicemembers; and as many as half a million wounded or otherwise damaged veterans. Romney also left unclear what he would have done differently if faced with a pro-Iran Iraqi government demanding a U.S. ouster and brandishing an agreement signed by Bush himself. He didn't indicate whether he intended to send more troops back to Iraq.
And yet it was more than either candidate had said about Iraq in a long time. Less than a year after Obama ordered the last American troops out, Iraq has barely been an issue in the presidential race.
But the U.S still maintains a significant diplomatic presence there, in the form of the largest and most expensive embassy ever built. Iraq is at long last becoming a geopolitical force in the region -- but an increasingly authoritarian one, closely allied with Iran.
And perhaps most significantly, Romney's own foreign policy speech was vetted by a team of foreign policy advisers heavy with the same neoconservative ideologues responsible for the U.S. presence in Iraq in the first place. Those include former U.N. ambassador and famed unilateralist John Bolton; Robert Joseph, a former National Security Council official who included the false claim that Iraq tried to buy uranium from Niger into Bush's 2003 State of the Union Address; Eric Edelman, who was former Vice President Dick Cheney's national security adviser; Dan Senor, head of public relations for the Coalition Provisional Authority; and many others.
"Iraq is relevant in all sorts of ways," said Peter Van Buren, a former State Department officer who wrote a satirical book blowing the whistle on Iraqi reconstruction efforts. "The first way of course is that those who don't follow history are doomed to repeat it."
The neoconservative ideology, basically, is that America should always show strength. But Van Buren argues that the war in Iraq showed the United States' enemies its weaknesses.
"America's power was demonstrated to have very clear limits," he said. "We have the world's most powerful military, but there seems to be a back door in terms of how to bleed it, how to defeat it."
Romney is blaming the new awareness of American weakness on Obama. But a New York Times editorial insisted on Tuesday that "as much as Mr. Romney wishes voters would believe otherwise, it was President George W. Bush’s unnecessary war in Iraq that gave Iran more room to maneuver and fueled anti-Americanism."
Paul Pillar, a former top CIA intelligence analyst for the Middle East, argues that the war in Iraq was one of the biggest and costliest blunders in the history of U.S. foreign relations. "It is in my view a clear failure, a horrible waste of resources and effort and lives," he told HuffPost "We are now out of it, but we have left behind a regime that is very sectarian, increasingly authoritarian and whose biggest friend is Iran."
Pillar said that he expects Obama will at some point remind the public that he inherited a "horribly expensive effort" and brought it to a close.
But, Pillar said: "There are pretty good reasons why various people in this election campaign don’t want to talk about it. On the one hand, the neocons and their closest allies don't want to be reminded of it. And many Democrats who went along with approving the war in 2002 don't want to be reminded either."
Ten years ago this month, Congress passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq -- giving Bush a green light for the invasion he would launch five months later.
The post-U.S.-withdrawal history of Iraq has had more than its share of debacles as well, most notably the collapse of the U.S. signature police-training program, a multibillion-dollar program the Iraqis said they didn't want.
"State flubbed this in such a spectacular way that it defied even my own dour prediction," said Van Buren.
Meanwhile, despite the roughly $6 billion a year operating cost of the massive and heavily fortified embassy, diplomatic relations with Iraq have suffered as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki consolidates power -- by among other things, exiling the country's vice president to Turkey and sentencing him to death.
The State Department is consolidating its operations and reducing the number of people it employs in Iraq -- from 16,000 at the beginning of the year, to about 14,000 now, to less than 11,500 by the end of 2013, a State Department official told HuffPost. But because so many foreign service officers and contractors are falling back to the embassy itself, construction on the $750 million compound actually continues, in order to make room for them and maintain the embassy's self-contained infrastructure.
Before Monday's speech, one of the few times Romney had spoken about Iraq at any length in the past 10 months was in an April address to the National Rifle Association, in which he spoke about the return of a dead soldier's body when he was governor of Massachusetts as a symbol of national unity:
One day toward the end of my term, my office got a call telling us that a soldier had been killed in Iraq. His casket was on a U.S. Airways flight, but his family had not been notified in time to get to the airport and receive his body. I was asked if I could go to the airport in their stead. I said, of course.
We drove over to the airport and on to the tarmac. The jet came in and the people disembarked. The luggage came down the conveyor, and then, after a little while, the casket appeared.
The state troopers who were there with me all saluted. I put my hand on my heart. And then I glanced up at the terminal. There’s a big wall of glass at the U.S. Airways terminal in Boston right where the plane had come in. The people coming off the plane had seen the police cars, so they’d stopped to see what was going on. And then the people walking down the hall saw the people leaning up against the glass, so they pulled up behind them. A huge crowd had formed up there.
Every single person had their hand on their heart.
When I think of our country, scenes like this come to mind. Should I have the honor of serving as president, that’s how I will seek to lead – not by pitting one group against another, but by bringing us together.
Obama made brief mention of Iraq on "60 Minutes" in September, responding to Romney's charge that he hasn't been aggressive enough in Iran or Syria.
"I said I'd end the war in Iraq. I did," Obama told CBS News.
"I said that we'd go after al Qaeda. They've been decimated in the Fatah. That we'd go after bin Laden. He's gone. So I've executed on my foreign policy. And it's one that the American people largely agree with. So if Gov. Romney is suggesting that we should start another war, he should say so."
UPDATE: 6:25 p.m. -- This story was updated to include numbers on the U.S. diplomatic presence in Iraq.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated construction funding for the U.S. compound in Iraq. The compound is a $750 million project.
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