This week's official end to the U.S. military mission in Iraq did not proceed the way the end of a traditional war might. There were no parades and no one will try to preserve the date in the nation's memory.
There are good reasons for this. The pullout of all remaining troops (a few hundred military and civilian personnel will remain as advisers and trainers) leaves many people, most notably military leaders, feeling uneasy.
At a ceremony marking the withdrawal, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta warned, "Iraq will be tested in the days ahead." Afterward, Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the outgoing commander in Iraq, said of Iraq's government: "From a standpoint of being able to defend against an external threat, they have very limited to little capability, quite frankly."
President Barack Obama is taking a risk, both politically and for the long-term stability of the Middle East, by carrying out a withdrawal. It is true that the pullout date actually was set by his predecessor, George W. Bush, but the United States cannot afford to let the blood of its brave soldiers seem as if it was shed in vain if Iraq subsequently crumbles under attacks by terrorists and others seeking power.
Still, after 4,487 American lives and 32,226 more soldiers injured, the nation is ready for the war to end. Nine years is a long time, especially in a conflict that was launched for stated reasons that later turned out to be unjustified. This does not mean, however, that the war was an utter waste.
U.S. forces never did uncover weapons of mass destruction. They did, however, oust Saddam Hussein. Nearly a decade later, it can be easy to forget how Saddam toyed with the United States and how he defied United Nations' sanctions, cutting secret deals with nations that were pledged to enforcing those sanctions. It's easy to forget how he bluffed the world about his non-existent nuclear weapons program, leading U.N. inspectors on wild cat-and-mouse games across the nation. It's easy to forget how he systematically tortured his own citizens and denied them basic rights.
Critics may point to Iraq's destabilization since Saddam's fall, and to the increase in violence by ethnic and ideological forces. They also can point to how Iraq no longer is an effective buffer against Iran's unsavory ambitions.
But at least Iraq now has the framework of a republican government. An Iraq that values democratic processes and allows diverse groups to coexist peacefully is the best buffer against any regional oppression.
That ideal is in its most fragile state as U.S. troops leave the country. Enemies are bound to try to crush the government. The ultimate success or failure of the Iraqi mission still hangs in the balance.