We apparently can forget all the fiery campaign rhetoric by Republican opponents against the Obama plan to withdraw combat troops from Iraq by the summer of 2010. Reaction to the president's announcement last Friday that he would meet that pledge - though in 19 months instead of the 16 he had promised - was remarkably calm. Even John McCain, who repeatedly accused Mr. Obama on the campaign trail of a pending "surrender" in Iraq, said he was "cautiously optimistic" that the Obama plan could "lead to success."
Former Bush administration officials said the same of the withdrawal schedule that was developed cooperatively by the Obama administration with American commanders and Iraqi leaders. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki also said he was "very comfortable with the plan."
Grumbling came only from Democratic proponents of a more rapid draw-down. House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi complained that the leave-taking would take too long and leave too large a residual support force until the end of 2011. Conservative Republicans, however, were generally supportive of what is widely seen as a responsible withdrawal timetable.
The consensus reaction is telling. It suggests not just that Barack Obama's pragmatism strikes the right chord, but also that America's political leaders, like their constituents around the country, have broadly agreed that whatever their view of the origin of the Iraq war six years ago, it's time for U.S. troops to begin leaving, and to leave completely by 2011.
That doesn't mean that experts and American commanders expect Iraq to be a full-bore democracy success story by the time combat troops are withdrawn by the president's announced Aug. 31, 2010, deadline. Few, if any, actually expect that. Most now believe Iraq will be a Shiite-dominated country long fractured by sectarian, ethnic and tribal fault lines, never mind the $3 trillion the war ultimately will cost America.
Sunnis, a 20 percent minority whose members ruled and suppressed the large Shiite majority under Saddam Hussein, reasonably worry that Shiites may seek political vengeance once Americans withdraw entirely. That will be at the of 2011 under the new status-of-forces agreement negotiated under President Bush.
The president himself, and his commanders, obviously are wary of that possibility. Mr. Obama's announcement forthrightly asserted that his timeline was flexible, and that Americans would continue non-military support for the Iraqi government after 2011 if the government continues to be non-sectarian.
That potential dilemma, of course, has always been the basis for skepticism about the nature of the endeavor that the Iraq war was turned into after the Bush administration's initial justifications foundered. But that's no reason to stay longer in Iraq. In fact, the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, or any link to al-Qaida terrorism and 9/11 - the initial cover justifications for the Bush administration's reckless and unnecessary invasion of a country that posed no threat to America - have demonstrated all too well how wrong this costly war has been.
This nation's obligation to remain at all rests on the need to mitigate some of the damage the war caused. But with Iraqis demanding all American forces out by the end of 2011, there's no justification to stay longer. So much for the initial Bush-Cheney vision of a long-term American presence in another oil-rich Middle Eastern nation to take the place of Saudi Arabia.
Still, the American draw-down won't begin in earnest until after Iraq's national elections at the end of the year. American forces, which now number 142,000, have already begun to turn over lead authority for combat missions to Iraqi units. That process will be accelerated, and phased withdrawals of U.S. combat troops will intensify after elections. A residual force of 35,000 to 50,000 troops will remain to support the goals of training Iraqi units and making targeted attacks on terrorist cells until the end of 2011.
While rightly praising the work of U.S. soldiers, President Obama rightly elaborated on the costs and consequences of the war. He said the nation had learned "that we must always weigh the costs of action and communicate those costs candidly" to Americans; that we must use all elements of American power to achieve our objectives," including diplomacy and civilian national security capacity; and that political leaders must pursue broad bipartisan support and consult closely with allies and friends, "which is why we are launching a new era of engagement in the world," he said.
Certainly all those lessons are true. But they were also known before the Iraq war was begun. So while planning a withdrawal is the right thing to do, the question about the Iraq war remains: Why were those lessons ignored and trampled in the first place?