Max Boot: Winning the Peace in Iraq

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Max Boot is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is writing a history of guerrilla warfare and terrorism.]

The Stryker armored vehicles of the U.S. Army's Fourth Brigade, Second Infantry Division have just rumbled out of Iraq. Their trip from Baghdad to Kuwait was only 300 miles long, but symbolically the distance was much greater.

The Fourth Brigade is the last combat brigade to pull out of Iraq as the U.S. military—having lost 4,415 soldiers (and still counting) and turned around a war effort that was on the verge of failure—hustles to draw down to 50,000 troops by the end of August. "Operation Iraqi Freedom," that legacy of the Bush administration, is ending. On Sept. 1, "Operation New Dawn," the product of hope and change, takes its place.

Going forward, most remaining U.S. troops will not serve in "combat" but will be part of what the military calls "advise and assist brigades." The distinction is largely artificial, crafted to show that the promised American withdrawal is on schedule. Fifty thousand soldiers will retain substantial combat capacity whether they are designated as "advisers," "combatants" or "tourists." And some of them, especially in elite antiterrorism units, will continue to operate at the pointy end of the spear.

Nevertheless, this transition offers an opportunity to reflect on what has been accomplished—and what still needs to be done. The debit side of the ledger is plain to see: the dollars spent, the lives shattered. American fatalities are measured in the thousands, Iraqis in the tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands. Yet, like the Londoners of World War II, the Iraqis have shown a wonderful resiliency in the face of carnage.

The economy is growing as oil production is rising and will soon exceed prewar levels. Electricity generation, after many setbacks, is already 40% above the prewar level (according to the Brookings Institution's Iraq Index). Every Iraqi I've encountered during my recent visits there seems to have at least one cell phone, usually two or three. The streets of Baghdad are again crowded. Amusement parks, restaurants, even liquor stores are open after dark.

Above all, the terrible fear of Saddam and his secret police, of the knock in the night, has been lifted. Numerous radio and TV shows, newspapers and magazines air a variety of viewpoints, and politicians from a multiplicity of parties compete in free and fair elections.

Americans can take pride in how Iraq has developed. But have we truly "won" the war?..

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