WASHINGTON-As President Barack Obama prepares to mark the end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq with an Oval Office speech this evening, Connecticut lawmakers say they are still deeply anxious about the conflict and the U.S. role there.
Today marks an official change in mission in the seven-year war, which roiled domestic and international politics, has cost more than $700 billion dollars, and claimed the lives of about 4,400 U.S. troops, including more than three dozen from Connecticut.
But even with the last U.S. troops assigned to combat roles decamped from Iraq and the remaining 50,000 serving in an advisory capacity, there are no victory parades or celebratory rallies in the works. At best, Connecticut lawmakers said, they are relieved to see the U.S. role wind down. And at worst, they are jittery about what will happen without American forces in place.
The day will close a “sorry” chapter in American foreign policy, said Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District. “What did we really achieve, apart from removing one awful dictator who had nothing to do with Sept. 11th?”
Although ousting Saddam Hussein was a positive accomplishment, Himes added, “We paid far, far, far too high a cost to achieve those things.”
“It was a misconceived war” from the start, said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, and “a colossal waste of resources and people.”
In his remarks set for 8 p.m. tonight, Obama is expected to note that he is fulfilling a campaign pledge to set a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. But he faces a politically delicate task of drawing attention to that success, without declaring “mission accomplished,” as former President George W. Bush did in May of 2003.
For one thing, DeLauro noted, “the situation remains precarious.” The stability of Iraq is far from assured, as a series of attacks that killed at least 60 people last week demonstrated, and the U.S. will have to remain engaged diplomatically and financially, if not militarily.
Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd, said that while he thought the end of combat in Iraq was a “significant milestone,” no one can take a victory lap.
“The jury is still out” on whether the war made the U.S. safer or not, said Courtney, a member of the House Armed Services Committee. In addition to the human and financial toll, he added, “we paid a very heavy price in terms of … our standing in the world.”
The delegation’s leading backer of the war–Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who was forced to run for re-election as an independent in 2006 after losing the Democratic nomination largely over his support for the war–was not available for comment Monday, his staff said.
Anthony Cordesman, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he’s worried that the change of mission will breed complacency, with policymakers and the public taking their eye off the ball in Iraq. In his view, the situation in Iraq is as dangerous now as it was seven years ago.
He notes that Iraq still faces a virulent insurgency, deep sectarian and ethic divisions, a fractured political structure, and budget woes-all as international aid is diminishing.
“The worst fear is that we would find a government that is difficult to deal with and we would basically give up and not maintain the kind of aid, in military and civilian terms, that will … give us enough influence to move Iraq forward,” Cordesman said. “There may be a push [in Congress] against any kind of aid, even though it’s relatively limited compared to what we’ve been spending.”
DeLauro said that what she wants to hear from Obama tomorrow night is simple: a restatement that he will honor his commitment to bring all the troops home. As for what’s next, she said, “it is the Iraqi people’s country, and they must take responsibility for keeping it safe and maintaining a stable government.”
Himes said the U.S. must stay somewhat engaged in Iraq, because if the country unravels, the economic and national security implications for the U.S. would be monumental. But, he added, “We have an awful lot of work to do here at home.”
Indeed, Courtney said Congress faces difficult questions choices ahead on Iraq policy, but the first step may be trying to make sure it doesn’t drop off the political radar.
Courtney recalled a hearing several years ago with Gen. David Petraeus, head of coalition forces in Iraq, that was packed “wall-to-wall” with members of the public and the press. “You could not move in the room,” he said. But during a more recent House hearing with the current Iraq commander, Gen. Raymond Odierno, half the committee members did not show up, there were no TV cameras, and two-thirds of the public seats were empty.
“You just really felt like everyone was trying to close this chapter, even though there were serious issues and work still going on,” he said.
Courtney said his biggest fear is that Iran will move to fill any power vacuum created by the U.S. departure. “They clearly see it to their benefit to extend power into Iraq, and I think in terms of the whole regional balance of power between Sunni and Shiite countries, that would be a very destabilizing development,” he said. “There are definitely challenges ahead.”