U.S. military forces have left Iraq, but it is evident that the U.S. will be dealing with the consequences of the Iraq war for some years to come. The widely-reported recent political turmoil and the increase in violence raise questions about the country's stability, while kidnapping threats issued against U.S. civilian workers in Baghdad suggest that conditions may be less than propitious for the kind of future U.S. civilian operation that the Obama administration envisages. The Green Zone, home to the largest U.S. embassy in the world, may be as much a space of confinement, albeit -- for at least some -- apparently rather luxurious confinement, in 2012 and beyond as it was during the previous years. And unresolved issues between the U.S. and Iraq's government persist, including the fate of the Iranians in the MEK group, resident in Iraq since 1986 and protected by the U.S. military until 2009. A UN-arranged deal for their voluntary emigration is in the works, but the linked article indicates that complications remain.
Four U.S. veterans of the Iraq war were interviewed on the PBS NewsHour tonight. Asked if it was "worth it" and if they would do it again, two basically answered in the negative and other two -- the two Marines on the panel -- said yes. All four agreed that there was a "disconnect" (and imbalance of sacrifice) between veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, less than one percent of the U.S. population, and the rest of society.
The debate about the Iraq war will probably never end, just as the debate about the Vietnam war has never really ended. It is doubtless possible to pile up anecdotes on both sides of the question. For every story about tens (or was it hundreds?) of thousands of dollars that were wasted in translating classics of American literature into Arabic (the books ended up in an unused pile behind an Iraqi school), there are probably stories about development projects that worked. For every instance of U.S. soldiers mistreating or even (in at least a few cases) deliberately and premeditatedly killing Iraqi civilians, there are probably cases of kindness toward and support for civilians.
It seems clear enough to me that the Iraq war was a tragic, unnecessary venture whose original justifications were either flimsy or fabricated and whose costs -- in lives, money and disruption -- could not be outweighed by the removal of Saddam Hussein, awful as he was, and by his replacement by what may or may not turn out to be a functioning polity and society. But it is, in a sense, easy for someone who sat at home and observed things from a distance to reach this judgment. Even the very well-informed journalists who covered the conflict at first hand and wrote books about it (Packer, Filkins, Chandrasekaran, et al.) probably cannot be viewed as having produced much more than, as the cliché has it, the first draft of history. It's difficult to engage in the careful comparative weighing of misery, which, along with painstaking research, is what any more definitive judgment on the conflict will require. But one thing that seems fairly certain is that it will be a long time before the U.S. embarks on another such undertaking.