Since President Obama took office, more than 90,000 U.S. troops have come home from Iraq. Last week, the Pentagon reported, the last U.S. combat brigade left. The number of U.S. combat troops there is now below 50,000, officials say. That fulfills Obama's pledge to pull out all but 50,000 troops by the end of this month, with the vow that the U.S. combat mission in Iraq is over. The question is: now what?
Actually there are several big questions.
To what extent are "combat troops" being replaced by Special Operations forces, other U.S. personnel, and private contractor mercenaries?
Will all U.S. troops leave in December 2011, as the U.S.-Iraqi agreement specifies? Reports are that Special Operations forces will stay on. What about other U.S. forces and private contractors?
What exactly is the U.S. role in Iraq between now and the end of 2011? And what will it be beyond that?
What is the U.S. responsibility to the Iraqi people, and how should it be fulfilled?
The president says the "transitional force" now remaining there will switch its focus from combat to "supporting and training Iraqi forces, partnering with Iraqis in counterterrorism missions, and protecting our civilian and military efforts."
"Make no mistake: Our commitment in Iraq is changing - from a military effort led by our troops to a civilian effort led by our diplomats," he told a convention of Disabled American Veterans in Atlanta Aug. 2.
He told the veterans he wants to bring the Iraq war to a "responsible end." We applaud that. Certainly, as we read of new rounds of vicious violence around Iraq, leaving dozens of innocent Iraqis dead and wounded, we ponder the U.S. responsibility for this violence. As we read about Iraq's ravaged economy, the sewage running in the streets, the lack of electricity, the joblessness, we remember that it didn't have to be this way.
Some Iraqis, most notably the Iraqi Communist Party - with a heroic record of resistance to Saddam Hussein's bloody dictatorship - warned that a U.S. invasion was not the way to get rid of Saddam.
After the shock and awe invasion, instead of handing over power to Iraqi democratic forces, the U.S. installed its own occupation viceroy, fanned sectarian discord, opened the floodgates of contractor boondoggles and corrupt cronyism - all focused on making Iraq and its vast oil a junior partner to U.S. oil interests.
Seven years later, the thousands of dead and maimed, the shattered families - Iraqis first of all, but also Americans - present the U.S. with a profound responsibility.
Yes we do have a responsibility to help Iraq train its armed forces and security personnel so they can protect their own people, and to provide them with the necessary resources, which the Bush administration failed miserably to do. But it's not our job to manipulate their economy or their politics, to pick and choose who should govern their country.
We do have a responsibility to help rebuild their hospitals, water systems, schools, cultural facilities - wrecked in the invasion or later under our watch or by our own contractors. But the U.S. should not be directing the money or deciding the projects.
Unfortunately, we're seeing some warning signs that point in the wrong direction. A massive State Department presence in Iraq is being developed. Vast numbers of private U.S. contractors are deployed there. And notions are being floated that the U.S. military presence may "need" to continue beyond next year.
Let's make sure all of our occupation of Iraq ends - military, economic and political.
It's time to shed the old foreign policy habit, that sees Iraq as nothing but a giant oil well to fuel America's oil-based economy, and a geopolitical pawn and military launch-pad to keep the rest of the region's oil flowing our way. We just can't afford it - not in taxpayer dollars, not in human lives, not in the survival of our planet.