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Time to declare a new dawn in Iraq?

Guest Blogger

A full understanding of the Iraq War will be left to historians. A fine starting point, however, may be the documents in “The Iraq Papers” edited by John Ehrenberg, J. Patrice McSherry, Jose Ramon Sanchez and Caroleen Marji Sayej and published last month by Oxford University Press. The book contains government documents, speeches, letters, article excerpts and more -- all tracing the origins of thinking back in the 1990s through the launch of the war to the Obama adminstration. The editors provide context and commentary on the documents. Ehrenberg, author of “Civil Society: The Critical History of an Idea,” here assesses the meaning behind the evolution of the mission’s name from Operation Iraqi Freedom under President Bush to Operation New Dawn under President Obama.

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By John Ehrenberg

When President Bush announced the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom on March 10, 2003, he did not foresee how quickly his administration’s preemptive invasion would dissolve into an orgy of chaos, civil war, insurgency, regional instability, international isolation and political defeat. Seven long years later we are left with the task of understanding what happened.

President Obama was elected in no small measure because of the invasion’s collapse and the public’s growing rejection of unilateralism, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates signaled a change in course when he wrote to U.S. Central Commander David Petraeus on February 17, 2010, to propose a name change. Since Operation Iraqi Freedom has ended, Gates announced, the new mission will be called Operation New Dawn.

Does it mean that it’s all over except for a few loose ends that the Iraqis are going to settle themselves? After all, a lot of Americans aren’t being killed in Iraq any more, a central government in Baghdad seems to be relatively stable, an institutional framework is in place to contain matters and settle disputes, and a “decent interval” has allowed for the gradual withdrawal of U.S. forces.

The lessons of Iraq have been learned and Petraeus will apply them with much more sophistication in Afghanistan than was possible under Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice and the other architects of Operation Iraqi Freedom. All things considered, we are told, it didn’t turn out too badly.

It would be comforting if it were this easy to move on, but politics is about a lot more than new names and even new dawns. There are a number of compelling reasons why we should still be paying a lot of attention to Iraq.

First of all, Bush’s preemptive war tapped into a long history of American interventionism that did not disappear because of a new president. Obama certainly wants more engagement with the world and is undoubtedly more committed to diplomacy, multilateralism, international law, “soft power” and the like than Bush’s neoconservatives.

But it would be the height of naïveté to ignore the deeper lessons of the Bush administration’s attempt to organize The New American Century. The old forces, institutional pressures, and historical imperatives are alive and well. We need to know what they are if we are to really learn the lessons of the recent past.

Secondly, the people who brought us Iraqi Freedom are still around. They’re not in power for the moment, but the current political environment is very unstable and no one has a crystal ball. Some prominent neoconservatives, Randy Scheunemann and William Kristol among them, are central to Sarah Palin’s proto-campaign, are ensconced in the usual think tanks, newspapers and universities, and show no sign of renouncing their mission. Their vision of the world, and of the United States in it, remains potent and persuasive to millions of Americans.

Finally, there’s the matter of what Operation Iraqi Freedom meant to the people of Iraq and of the United States. Two million refugees, hundreds of thousands dead and wounded and a shattered society later, it’s going to take a lot more than a new dawn to make Iraq whole.

The United States brought a terrible catastrophe to the people of that country, and if we are to live as adults in a law-governed international system it’s important that we understand why Rumsfeld and Cheney’s prediction that the Iraqis would greet the invaders with flowers and candy taste like so much bitter fruit. And for Americans, the legacy of Operation Iraqi Freedom is no less important to understand. Torture, suffocating deficits, signing statements, the theory of the unitary president, paralyzing levels of division and polarization -- all this, and more, demonstrates how present these issues are.

We have a lot of honest, hard work to do if we are to make sense of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Before we proclaim the advent of a new dawn, we need to see some light.

By Steven E. Levingston  |  February 28, 2010; 6:32 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags: iraq war name change to operation new dawn; end of Operation Iraqi Freedom  
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Comments

Just the fact that there is indeed the potential for weapons of mass destruction in this area of the middle east makes "a new dawn" take on new meaning. Retaliation by Israel directed at Iraq and Iran could threaten any hope of peace in the Middle East in the future.

Posted by: moose490 | March 1, 2010 10:19 AM | Report abuse

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