The long, controversial U.S. effort in Iraq is ending more with a whimper than with a bang.
In Baghdad, Tuesday’s deadline for withdrawing American forces from Iraq’s cities was a national holiday, an occasion for rejoicing, despite some continuing violence.
In this country, it’s mainly a time for relief tempered with some concern, the beginning of the end of a seemingly good idea gone awry.
Most of the remaining 130,000 American troops are scheduled to leave Iraq over the next 30 months as President Barack Obama returns the U.S. focus to a renewed effort to find and destroy al-Qaida terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
That campaign’s success remains as uncertain as the future of Iraq.
So, too, is a final judgment of the 2003 attack: a costly detour that created more problems than it solved; or, ultimately, a positive step that helped produce a more democratic, stable Middle East.
In the short term, it’s hard to overcome the belief that it was a misguided act based on false premises that caused more damage than good.
President George W. Bush’s principal rationale — that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction — has been largely discredited, as has the way his administration misused intelligence. The argument that Hussein was a threat to his neighbors never really gained credibility.
And if the rationale was flawed, so, too, was the execution after the initially successful military “shock and awe” campaign that quickly achieved the initially popular goal of ousting the Iraqi dictator.
How else to explain the fact that, more than six years after Bush celebrated “mission accomplished,” the job is still not done?
Analysts generally believe that Bush attacked with insufficient military resources to complete the job, bungled the initial effort to rebuild the country’s governmental structure and badly underestimated the extent to which anti-U.S. groups would use the resulting chaos to prolong the conflict.
As a result, the U.S. wound up managing a messy, violent occupation, much as President George H.W. Bush and former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft predicted in their 1998 book.
The entire episode undercut U.S. standing throughout the Middle East.
These judgments won’t change, even though the younger Bush succeeded ultimately in heading off disaster and stabilizing the situation by stepping up the military effort with the “surge” strategy despite substantial domestic criticism, especially from leading Democrats.
By then, the onset of the 2008 presidential campaign, the loss of domestic support and pressure from Iraq forced the administration to acquiesce in the agreement to withdraw American forces, a course ensured with Obama’s election.
As a spate of fatal explosions in recent weeks has shown, U.S. withdrawal is fraught with peril. But despite some high-profile incidents, civilian deaths in Iraq dropped sharply in May, though military fatalities rose.
Predictably, some architects of the initial venture warn of future problems.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney, who prematurely proclaimed the insurgency in its “last throes” some four years ago, expressed concern Monday that the insurgents were just waiting for U.S. forces to pull out to renew their attacks.
“I would not want to see the U.S. waste all the tremendous sacrifice that has gotten us to this point,” he said on The Washington Times’ “America’s Morning News” radio show.
Until the U.S. completes its withdrawal and the full shape of postwar Iraq becomes clear, ultimate judgments are impossible. The extent to which Iraq’s new democratic government confronts its problems and improves its economic well-being may determine that verdict.
That’s only right.
But even future successes must forever be tempered by the high cost in American and Iraqi lives and treasure from what critics, including former Bush foreign policy official Richard Haas, correctly call a war of choice, not of necessity.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of The Dallas Morning News. His e-mail address is: [email protected]

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