Under the cover of darkness early Sunday morning, the last 500 U.S. combat troops sped out of Iraq in a 110-vehicle convoy to Kuwait, a departure kept secret even from Iraqi allies to avoid possible leaks to militants who might have inflicted one more ambush.
It was an ignominious end to an imperial adventure that cost around $1 trillion and left nearly 4,500 U.S. soldiers dead, along with uncounted hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, not to mention many thousands more injured and maimed.
Iraq's infrastructure also remains devastated by the war, and there is the strong possibility that sectarian tensions will again erupt into violence. With a new round of political arrests just this weekend, many Iraqis fear they may have traded one dictator, secular Sunni Saddam Hussein, for another tyrant, Shiite Nouri al-Maliki, today's strongman prime minister.
The United States will try to extend its influence -- and get some "value" for its massive investment -- but without tens of thousands of troops to deploy and without tens of billions of dollars to throw around, it is hard to envision how that will work. The arc of American power is clearly on the decline.
Most of the Iraqis quoted by the New York Times on Monday expressed relief that the American troops had finally left.
"We've been wanting this day since 2003," said Moustafa Younis, an auto mechanic in Mosul. "When they invaded us, we carried our machine guns and went out to fight them. We decided to do suicide operations against them. They committed many crimes, and we lost a lot of things because of them."
Indeed, the U.S. departure represents a hard-fought victory for the Iraqi resistance, including anti-American Shiite leader Moktada al-Sadr whose political influence with the Maliki government was a key factor in Maliki's rejection of American requests to leave behind a "residual" military force.
Strategically, Shiite-ruled Iran, which has close ties to both Maliki and Sadr, seems to have gained the most from the U.S. toppling of Iran's longtime nemesis, Saddam Hussein. Iran also worked behind the scenes to pressure Maliki into rejecting long-term U.S. bases that could be used to threaten Iran.
The impact of the war domestically is also unclear. Without doubt, the war's costs contributed to the vast U.S. budget deficit, which has spurred activism from both sides of the political spectrum. The right-wing Tea Party demands austerity at home, while Occupy Wall Street protesters push back against policies that favor military contractors and the rich. But which argument will prevail is uncertain.
Another consequence of the Iraq War and its WMD falsehoods has been a deeper public skepticism toward whatever the government says. Today, some on the Left don't even believe that the war is really over, seeing the withdrawal as just a P.R. subterfuge.
However, as much as some things have changed, others remain the same. The neoconservatives, who dreamt up the war, still have not given up their dream of exploiting America's advanced military technology to reshape the Middle East and eliminate Muslim governments that are deemed a threat to U.S. or Israeli interests.
The neocons, who remain very influential at Official Washington's leading think tanks and best-read op-ed pages, admit that mistakes were made early on in the war and that their cheery visions of happy Iraqis throwing flowers and candy at the U.S. invaders was a tad over-optimistic.
But the neocons are pushing the theme that their "successful surge" in 2007 "won" the war before President Barack Obama threw away their "victory" for political reasons.
However, the evidence actually points to the "surge," which cost nearly 1,000 U.S. lives, as a minor factor in the gradual decline in Iraqi violence. More important developments were the payoffs to Sunni militants in 2006 -- before the "surge" -- and back-channel deals between Maliki and Sadr to get Shiite militias to stand down in exchange for a U.S. withdrawal timetable.
It was President George W. Bush's grudging acceptance of a timetable that committed U.S. troops to leave by a fixed date, the end of 2011, that appears to have been the greatest single explanation for the drop-off in attacks against U.S. military personnel. However, Official Washington largely bought the neocon myth that the "surge" did it.