It's hard to believe, but today finally marks the beginning of the end of America's front line military role in Iraq.
Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki has named today, June 30th, 2009, an "Iraqi Independence Day" of sorts, a national holiday which he said would celebrate the "great victory" of Iraqis who have repulsed the foreign occupiers (aka their American liberators). With fireworks filling the night skies over Baghdad, all American combat troops are moving out of the major cities and towns, and, ready or not, the Iraqi military and police are taking charge - with plenty of American trainers in tow just in case.
It has now been over six years since President Bush stood in front of the "Mission Accomplished" banner, over $1 trillion since we were told the war would pay for itself, over 4,300 American lives lost since it was proclaimed we would be "greeted as liberators." That's the war from the American perspective.
Last month, I had the chance to see a different perspective as part of a Mercy Corps fact finding trip in Damascus, Syria, which is home to about 500,000 Iraqi refugees. Mercy Corps provides the refugees there with computer job training skills, but the Syrian government, terrified that this latest generation of refugees will stay in their nation, have instituted a $4,000 fine on any business which hires an Iraqi. None of the refugees we met wanted to return to Iraq; their lives as they knew them there were over. They wanted to start over again, in Europe or North America - in nations that are no more likely to welcome them than the Syrians. All wars have many unintended consequences.
It has been almost three years since Democratic primary voters in Connecticut stood up and changed the national conversation on Iraq by demanding a change in course. As the violence there has subsided, sadly the warring factions have not used the lull to make the tough political compromises necessary for lasting stability. Prime Minister Al Maliki has still not been able to draw up a just division of the oil revenues between Kurds and Sunnis and Shias, he has commandeered the military and been loath to include Sunnis in a national force, and he has been slower still to pay the Sunni Awakening councils whose allegiances could flip again. Still, with Iran distracted and the Iraqi national military stronger than ever, Al Maliki may be able to enforce a fragile peace - for now.
The tragedy of Iraq still lies in its origins - the fact that we rushed into a war of choice when we had so many other options. Hans Blix once told me that UN inspectors would have been able to verify that there were no weapons of mass destruction if they had only a couple more months to do their work in Iraq. Six years later, every day that passes is further confirmation that the war was indeed a massive strategic blunder, unhinging the delicate balance of power between Baath/Sunni Iraq and Shia Iran, sapping American resources and will before our mission in Afghanistan was complete, and compromising many of our core values and strategic relationships around the world. Nor did borrowing $1 trillion from the Chinese to pay for the war do much for America's economic independence or stability.
"It is easier to stay out than get out," Connecticut's own Mark Twain once wrote. And America's measured withdrawal from Iraqi cities, and then from Iraq, may indeed be messy. But our redeployment is at the direction of the Iraqi government, which represents a sovereign state beginning to assert itself, and that is something we can all cheer and support. This week, it is Independence Day in both Iraq and America, a day with very different meanings in each country. Iraqis may harbor private misgivings and display public bravura as we redeploy, but they know as well as we do that it is well past time. And this Independence Day, America will finally begin bringing home our troops to the hero's welcome that they all deserve.