President Barack Obama is putting the best face on the final American troop withdrawal from Iraq, declaring that the last soldiers will leave with "their heads held high." Meanwhile, neoconservative war hawks are denouncing Obama's failure to twist enough arms to get Iraqi leaders to accept "residual" U.S. military bases.
Yet, however it is spun, the Iraq War represents one of the worst strategic defeats in American history. An arrogant President George W. Bush invested about $1 trillion and nearly 4,500 American lives in a conflict that did little to advance U.S. national security interests and overall harmed U.S. standing in an economically crucial part of the world.
Yes, it's true that the United States retains a vast diplomatic presence protected by thousands of security contractors. But whatever advantage those huge outposts in Baghdad and other cities will give U.S. companies -- if any -- the giant embassy and the sprawling consulates represent more monuments to American hubris than anything else.
The diplomatic outposts were designed when the Bush administration anticipated a de facto pro-consul role for the United States, dictating policy to Iraqi politicians and using the country as a land-based aircraft carrier to project American power across the region. Now, those dreams have been swept away like confetti in an Iraqi sandstorm.
You could hear the bitterness over this defeat in the words and tone of Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, who took to the Senate floor to decry Obama's decision to stick with a withdrawal timetable that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki forced on Bush in 2008, but that neocons hoped would be aggressively renegotiated.
"It is clear that this decision of a complete pullout of United States troops from Iraq was dictated by politics and not our national security interests," McCain said, adding: "I believe that history will judge this president's leadership with scorn and disdain, with the scorn and disdain that it deserves."
McCain left little doubt that if he had won the presidential election in 2008, he would have battled hard for a long-term U.S. military presence in Iraq. In his speech, he also pushed the neocons' favorite Iraq War narrative which holds that Bush's heroic "surge" in 2007 -- with neocon support -- essentially "won" the war, but that Obama then threw their "victory" away.
Though this neocon narrative was popular in the mainstream U.S. press in 2008, it was never true. There were a variety of other factors that reduced the levels of violence in Iraq, including some like the so-called Sunni Awakening that preceded the "surge" and others like the Shiite militia ceasefire that was predicated on political commitments that the U.S. military would eventually leave.
But the neocons are highly skilled at creating favorable narratives and disseminating them to the American public. Contrary narratives, even when supported by hard facts and strong analysis, usually get short-shrift in the U.S. press. For instance, little U.S. press attention was afforded disclosures from al-Qaeda leaders that they saw the 9/11 attacks as a way to lure the United States into a trap.
Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, a book by the late Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad, quoted al-Qaeda leaders explaining how the attacks on New York and Washington were designed to provoke U.S. government "cowboys" into an over-reaction that would outrage the Muslim world and undermine pro-U.S. governments in the region.
Even though many al-Qaeda leaders have died in the process, their strategy might merit a "Mission Accomplished" banner a lot more than Bush's premature Iraq victory celebration on May 1, 2003, did.
But the neocons are determined that such a narrative -- portraying them as being tricked into a self-destructive over-reach into the Muslim world and handing a gift to Islamic extremists -- does not become the accepted history of the Iraq War. So, one can expect an ugly debate over "who lost Iraq?" -- just as the United States suffered through recriminations over "who lost China?" and "who lost Vietnam?"
The "Clean Break' Doctrine
Another thing the neocons don't want is for the American people to connect the painful and costly disaster in Iraq to neocon plans for using U.S. military power to advance Israeli security interests, though that is what the historical record points to. In the neocon fantasies of a decade ago, the invasion of Iraq was supposed to transform it into an ally of Israel and a base to pressure other anti-Israeli Muslim states for "regime change," especially Syria and Iran.
Then, once "regime change" came to Syria and Iran, the neocons believed support would dry up for Hezbollah in Lebanon and for Hamas in the Palestinian territories, freeing Israel to dictate terms to its Arab neighbors and thus bring a form of enforced peace to the region.
The early outlines of this aggressive concept for remaking the Middle East predated the 9/11 attacks by half a decade, when a group of American neocons, including Richard Perle and Douglas Feith, went to work for Israeli Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu during his 1996 campaign for prime minister.