President George W. Bush made not one decision, but two when he believed it necessary to rid the world of Saddam Hussein’s regime. The first was to utilize military force, but the second was even more momentous: Rather than simply replace one dictator with another, he sought to provide with a framework toward democracy. That decision, which is far too recent for historians to judge adequately, prolonged the American presence. Almost 4,500 American soldiers lost their lives not only to address a destabilizing threat Saddam Hussein posed but also to bring a chance at freedom to the Iraqi people.
While Islamist radicals used Saddam’s fall to rally their forces, and Iranian-backed militias moved in to intimidate Iraqis in predominantly Shi’ite areas, many ordinary Iraqis enjoyed their first breaths of freedom during the short honeymoon period before insurgency exploded. Two of my most memorable experiences occurred in the months immediately following Iraq’s liberation. In one case, I accompanied an Iraqi returnee I met randomly in the governor’s office of a southern province home to the house he fled two decades earlier. He had not told his parents he was coming, nor had he contacted them during his time abroad for fear that the regime might retaliate, as he was wanted for alleged opposition activities at the time he fled.
The look on his father’s face—and his mother’s—when they saw the son they believed to be in a mass grave was priceless, and the impromptu neighborhood celebration memorable. Likewise, in Kirkuk I was able to use my satellite phone first to find a woman’s exiled daughter and then let her speak to her mother for the first time in more than a decade, letting the woman not only reconnect to her child but also learn about her three grandchildren. I was not alone in such experiences. U.S. soldiers had far more contact with Iraqis than did diplomats, and such stories were the rule rather than the exception.
I typically visit Iraq twice each year, and gratitude Iraqis feel toward the United States remains. True, many Iraqis had grown frustrated with American occupation in the interim years, and they do not hesitate to point out what they see as mistakes (re-Baathification rather than de-Baathification chief among them) but they value liberty more than those who so often try to speak on Iraqis’ behalf in various circles. Now that the Americans are gone—and with the American diplomatic presence pretty much invisible behind the embassy’s blast walls—Iraqis increasingly look at an American presence–not occupation certainly but a presence–with longing. Sometimes absence does make the heart grow fonder.
Lukman Faily, Iraq’s talented new ambassador to the United States, has an important thank you in today’s USA Today. He begins:
My first trip to the hallowed grounds of Arlington National Cemetery was on a rainy Friday afternoon, soon after my arrival in Washington. As the newly appointed ambassador to the United States from Iraq, it was important for me to honor the brave American men and women who gave their last full measure of devotion so that the people I represent may live to be free. Standing before the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and gazing over the rolling hills of Arlington, I was struck by the depth of the sacrifices borne by the United States to defeat tyranny, support the oppressed and build democratic institutions around the world.
And he gives credit where so much credit is due:
In my country, nearly 2 million more U.S. military personnel served and helped liberate my country from Saddam Hussein and defeat al-Qaeda. Iraq is on track to join other countries that have benefited from America’s sacrifices. Our economy is one of the fastest growing in the world, oil production is growing, democratic institutions are maturing and our sixth round of elections is scheduled for April of next year. These successes were not generated solely by Iraqis. America’s soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and foreign service officers helped set Iraq on the path to success — and we are thankful to all of those brave men and women.
Having come to Washington after several years in Tokyo, Ambassador Faily understands the importance of post-war relationships. How tragic it is, then, that the United States has been so lacking in maximizing its relationship with Iraq. Iraq wants greater ties. Iraq and the United States face a common foe in al-Qaeda. It is short-sighted not to grasp Iraq’s outstretched hand but for much of the past two years, the United States has effectively closed the door on its relationship with Iraq. When Faily concludes, “The United States remains Iraq’s ally of choice; on this day, we reflect on, and learn from our past, and look forward to building on our partnership in the years to come,” let us hope that the White House and Congress are listening.