One of the last American combat soldiers to leave Iraq exclaimed, according to the New York Times: "We won! It's over! America, we brought democracy to Iraq!"
It's easy to understand his giddiness as he exited Iraq for Kuwait and soon America. Over here the reaction to the end of our "official" combat role has been more muted. For one thing, 50,000 American troops remain to assist the Iraqis and conduct counterterrorism operations, and everyone understands that if necessary they could be committed to combat again, too. These forces are supposed to pull out by the end of next year, but the deadline could be extended if the Iraqis ask for it and President Obama agrees.
The other reason why there are no ticker-tape parades for our returning heroes is that, though they did everything they were asked to do and more, it's clear that what they were asked to do did not amount to winning. Obama himself never speaks of "victory" but of "responsibly ending this war." In the long line of American war aims, this has got to rank near the bottom, far below President Nixon's "peace with honor" in Vietnam. Obama does not even ask for peace, which is clever because he knows Iraq is not at peace, at least if we accept Thomas Hobbes's famous definition. "For as the nature of foul weather lieth not in a shower or two of rain, but in an inclination thereto of many days together," Hobbes wrote, "so the nature of war consisteth not in actual fighting, but in the known disposition thereto during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is peace." Iraq suffers from a "known disposition" to war among its own parts—they slaughtered one another lustily as recently as three years ago—even if civil war is not raging now. And with Iran waxing nuclear and the whole region in dread of its growing power—and with Iran's geopolitical interest lying in a weak, divided Iraq or a united one under Iran's thumb—the "known disposition" to regional war is high, too.
Perhaps, though, Obama meant he would responsibly end our war, America's combat in Iraq, even if their war or wars continued. But then our war and the Iraqis' war have been mixed up from the beginning, at least from the moment when President George W. Bush agreed to let the invasion of Iraq deliquesce into the occupation of Iraq. This was not our strategic intent going in; it happened, in a way that did not do credit to Bush and his administration. Our forces and coalition allies toppled Saddam Hussein and his Baathist regime, grand and honorable achievements that soon got left behind—as Angelo Codevilla and Mark Helprin argued brilliantly in these pages—in a "mission creep" that made democratization of Iraq more and more the central goal of American policy. It's unclear whether democratization begat occupation, or the other way round; maybe the ideas were two sides of the same coin. But seven years later, longer than our involvement in World Wars I and II combined, we are still there and, for reasons good and bad, likely to be around in some capacity for years to come—unless Obama is desperate to shore up his left come late 2011.
President Bush deserves credit for the surge, which interrupted the civil war between Shia and Sunni and helped pull Iraq back from the brink. But the fact is the Sunni had already lost. Baghdad is now overwhelmingly a Shia city, and according to the Financial Times, more than one in six Iraqis remain refugees. The surge helped quell al-Qaeda, to be sure. But the Sunni had already begun to turn against their erstwhile partners, because a little fanaticism goes a long way and al-Qaeda's misadventures had helped ignite the Shia militias against the Sunni.
Even Bush regarded the surge as a means to an end. That end was a stable, democratic Iraq. Almost six months after their last general election, the Iraqis have not been able to form a government. The two Shia parties are reluctant to keep house with the so-called secular coalition led by former prime minister Ayad Allawi, a one-time Baathist backed by most of the Sunni voters. In an interview with Der Spiegel, Allawi admitted, "We have not yet transitioned to democracy.... We have reached a point now where nobody trusts anybody and where the future of the country and the entire region is at stake."
In case of an unfortunate conflict of the adjectives, Iraqis themselves would doubtless prefer a stable Iraq to a democratic one, so long as stability did not imply abject tyranny. In Iraq democracy, like victory, may prove elusive.