"It is the end for the Americans only. Nobody knows if the war will end for the Iraqis, too."
-- Emad Risn, Iraqi columnist, writing for the Assabah al-Jadeed in Iraq.
As it was in Vietnam, so it is in Iraq, as it was always bound to be from the start.
The American military and all its brave members were thrust into another untenable war on another illogical, unproved and ultimately false pretext. It valiantly fought a native force to a standstill. And now, it is leaving the place of war with an uncertain legacy for its mission, and an uncertain future for Iraq.
In the wake of this war are unvarnished lessons of misguided politics, and the bones of tallied and untallied costs.
Iraq remains a land of immense damage and dysfunction, unrepaired destruction and unhealed despair, violence and grief -- and the scary specter of a return of the ethnic and sectarian strife that was unleashed by the war.
Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed in the war, and many times that number were wounded and injured. More than 4 million Iraqis, nearly a fifth of the population, were displaced from their homes and towns -- with half of those forced to flee to sanctuaries across Iraq's borders.
For America, the legacy of the war is chiefly the mind-boggling loss of blood and treasure, and the political blowback of Iraqi and Mideast disdain over a delusional venture, essentially, to establish another oil station to mitigate the loss of U.S. power in Saudi Arabia.
American blood was spilled mainly by the minuscule fraction of our people who belong to the military. Their members and families endured constant redeployments, anguished waits and broken bodies -- those of 4,500 killed, and nearly 35,000 wounded, many grievously due to IEDs, the deadliest weapons of asymmetrical warfare waged by unyielding, uninformed militias.
U.S. treasure spent on the war was all borrowed by a president who simultaneously gave the country a deep, gratuitous tax cut. The cost amounts to more than $1 trillion in new federal debt, not counting the future costs in the pipeline of veterans care and military rebuilding.
Yet while America is now leaving Iraq, no one knows if the war is yet over.
One of the ironies of the war was that the death of Saddam Hussein and his brutal regime, and the ouster of his Baathist party infrastructure and the mistaken American dismantling of the Sunni-controlled Army, all led to a five-year civil war that unleashed the furies of the long-suppressed majority Shiites and the long-persecuted Kurds.
The potential for a renewed outbreak of civil war once America leaves haunts Iraq and its people. But the new Iraqi government, dominated by the Shia majority and tacitly supported by neighboring Iran's Shia majority, seems to be waiting on the troubles to begin.
Iraq's Sunni Muslims, who controlled Iraq under the Baathists and Hussein, constitute barely 20 percent of the country's population; the Shia number around 70 percent. The Sunnis' ruling clans came mainly from the oil-less Sunni Triangle in central Iraq; the Shia control the oil in the South, and the fearsome Kurds the oil in the north.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, despite Washington's constant urging, still seems focused mainly on vengeance for the Shia and ethnic supremacy. He has deliberately stalled for years on Iraq's new constitutional mandate to establish a working democracy that fairly apportions political power, oil and military and civil-service integration among the major ethnic sects and Iraq's minorities. He has also steadfastly refused to negotiate an extension of the Status of Forces agreement negotiated by former President George W. Bush, which is why American forces must now be out of Iraq by Dec. 31.
Once U.S. troops are gone, Washington's influence, already in deep decline, will be at low ebb. The Obama administration must attempt to steer Iraq toward a functional democracy, but that clearly will be a tough challenge.
The lesson for America from the Iraq war is the intolerable, unsustainable cost of making a war based on hubris, lies and lack of compelling logic, in an inhospitable and distant land whose people will fight and die to eject invaders. The lesson of this war for Iraq remains to be written.