US soldier in Baghdad, 2008 (Daily Mail)
Just about everyone has heard of George Santayana’s famous warning* that “those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Almost as many people are acquainted with Senator George Aiken’s modest Vietnam-era suggestion that the US simply declare victory in that war and then get out. Now that the US has formally ended its combat mission in Iraq, could it be that President Obama is finally learning a lesson from history?
The Vermont Republican’s actual words in 1966 were actually a bit more nuanced: “The United States could well declare unilaterally ... that we have 'won' in the sense that our armed forces are in control of most of the field and no potential enemy is in a position to establish its authority over South Vietnam." Such a declaration, he said, "would herald the resumption of political warfare as the dominant theme in Vietnam. … It may be a far-fetched proposal, but nothing else has worked.”
On the surface, this looks like what Obama is doing in Iraq. The US military prevailed over Saddam Hussein and his army seven years ago already, and no regular foreign forces are in any position to cross the country’s borders. A formal democracy has been established, a constitution has been ratified, numerous local and national elections have taken place. By most accounts, the group “Al Qaeda in Iraq” has long since lost the initiative to the “Iraqi Awakening.” Isn’t a declaration of “victory” long overdue?
And yet, the withdrawal of US “combat troops” last week in keeping with the 2008 “Status of Forces Agreement” may only amount to so much deckchair-shuffling as the crippled Iraqi ship of state continues to crawl forward. 50,000 fully armed, fully capable US troops will remain in the country “at least” until the end of 2011. The US Air Force will continue to patrol the skies. Contracted security services are stepping up their involvement, as the State Department announces plans to establish a quasi-military force of its own, numbering in the thousands, that will be “driving armored vehicles, flying aircraft, operating surveillance systems, even retrieving casualties if there are violent incidents and disposing of unexploded ordnance.” The agency is requesting “Black Hawk helicopters; fifty mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles; fuel trucks; high-tech surveillance systems; and other military gear” from Congress. Hundreds of State Department personnel will continue to occupy the world’s largest embassy in Baghdad, a top-level target that will need to be protected by more than just local police.
Moreover, General Ray Odierno said last week that combat troops may “return” to Iraq if the current government – which, incidentally, has still failed to constitute itself since the parliamentary election in March – should prove unable to maintain order. Political and ethnic tensions remain high in a country whose infrastructure remains shattered and where anywhere between a hundred thousand and more than a million people have been killed during and after what most Iraqis view as an illegal and unprovoked war of aggression. Just yesterday one of America’s newly named “transitional troops” was killed in a rocket attack in southern Iraq. And with some 115 billion barrels of proven oil reserves lying beneath Iraqi soil, it’s unlikely the US will lose interest in this corner of the world anytime soon.
Of course, the problem with Aiken’s notion of declaring “victory” is that it begs the question of “victory for whom and for what?” Back at the end of the first century BCE, the Roman historian Tacitus quoted a Celtic chieftain who took a very dim view of his conquerors' Pax Romanum: “To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.” This sounds like many of the comments coming out of Baghdad today, where the city’s electricity grid has still not been restored and daily temperatures regularly shoot to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
"We may be through with the past, but the
past ain't through with us." (Magnolia)
Whether we are really condemned to repeat the past is an open question, but there’s no doubt that history sometimes does seem like déjà vu over and over again. President George W. Bush basically already declared victory back in 2003, stating “Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.” But as the narrator says in the movie Magnolia, "We may be through with the past, but the past ain't through with us."
In his eagerness to put a wrap on the history his predecessor so grandly set in motion, Obama’s de facto declaration of “victory” may only mark the transformation of the grand neoconservative dream of an Iraq that was to have been a “beacon of democracy and a friend of Israel” into just the “Hotel Baghdad,” where we can check out anytime we like, but we can never leave.
*Santayana’s famous dictim is frequently misquoted. What he actually said was: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”