The war that presidential candidate Barack Obama called "stupid" ends in a few weeks by order of President Barack Obama, who thinks we've done about all we can in Iraq. In which case, he may be right. Though, he neglects to shine much light on the road that now lies before his country -- in regards to the United States' role in the world.
Possibly, no other president, at this moment in history, would do differently. For with all the risks tied to withdrawing every one of the troops, leaving Iraq becomes something like a pacification of the country. With respect to its overall position in the world, the United States hasn't really known what it was trying to do since the collapse of the Soviet empire. Are we the policeman of the world, the bringers of democracy, or what? In regards to Iraq, it might be best for us to step back and ask a vital question: What's in it - however "it" may be defined -- for us?
Realism and idealism, in foreign policy, grapple continuously in the minds of Americans. Are we here to reform the world (e.g. Woodrow Wilson, with a delicate nod to George W. Bush), or to look out for No. 1 (e.g. Henry Kissinger)? Our experience in Iraq tilts us toward the latter course. We did the best we could to nurture democratic instincts in the hearts of a people who -- well, let's be frank -- don't appear to have been cut out by Allah for self-government.
To the extent that Saddam Hussein's regime menaced us (if indeed it is less than U. S. intelligence led us to believe), the job of overthrowing Hussein may have been worthwhile. The point that may have tipped us to recognize our limitations, was the Iraqis' sharply divided attitude toward our postwar presence. If Iraq was slobberingly eager to be saved from tyranny, why didn't the Iraqis act that way?
It would likely be excessive to call the Iraqis no-good ingrates, but gratitude is hardly their strong suit. They will be as glad to see our backs as perhaps the Indians were to see the Brits'. The British presence in India conferred on their country innumerable blessings -- "the cry of hosts ye humour/Ah, slowly! toward the light," wrote Rudyard Kipling. "Why brought ye us from bondage -- our loved Egyptian night?"
The Iraq venture began as an exercise tailored to the elimination of Islamic terrorism. A lot of Islamic terrorists have been duly and wonderfully eliminated. A lot of no-good ingrates have been raised to positions of power in Iraq. Their like increases. Meanwhile in Afghanistan, the next country from where the United States must withdraw sooner or later, Western colonies have become unfashionable.
The build-democracy phase of American policy may be ending, its objectives only partially met. What will happen now isn't clear in the least. Two hundred nations -- a minority of them freely functioning democracies -- is a large handful for the U.S. with the limitations imposed by economic turmoil. Before America's withdrawal, Richard Nixon, in the midst of "Vietnam-izing" the Vietnam War, declared with some explicitness that the United States couldn't be expected to police the world.
Indeed -- the job being too big, the circumstances too variable. Obama's withdrawal order to our forces in Iraq might have been put off for a short while, until an agreement was reached -- the big sticking point -- on immunity from Iraqi justice for Americans training Iraqi troops. That the Iraqis weren't willing to yield on so unexceptionable a point shows they think the dance has lasted long enough. They don't want us any longer, the no-good ingrates. Or maybe...
Maybe we have learned -- and are still learning -- a lesson from the Iraqis about the limits of reform projects. Americans themselves don't always enjoy projects of reform and uplift, as instituted by their duly elected government. The world is wild, quarrelsome and not especially submissive to sweet reason. A workable foreign policy is shaped around realities of this sort much more than it can ever be founded on hopes for the reformation of non-American others.