The longest and most contentious war in U.S. history ended this month with T.S Eliot’s proverbial whimper. A dictator was removed, a regime transformed, democracy imposed. While the soldiers celebrated their departure, the response in the United States was muted. A conflict that started with “shock and awe” ended with a yawn. Now, Americans and Iraqis are toting up the cost and trying to decide whether it was worth the thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars.

The second Iraq war was launched March 20, 2003, when U.S. President George W. Bush led a multinational coalition against Saddam Hussein, arguing that the Iraqi president was a menace to world peace because of his support for terrorists and his presumed desire to acquire weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Those weapons were never found and the link to terrorists — as least those who had attacked the U.S. — was weak.

Nonetheless, the Bush administration insisted that war was justified and it produced alternative rationales for invasion, such as planting the seeds of democracy in the Middle East or ending the Baghdad regime’s human rights abuses. In one of the more candid and telling comments, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz called the WMD claim the lowest common denominator, “the one claim everyone could agree on.”

Whatever the excuse, the war lasted for nine years. Saddam and his government were quickly overthrown, although it was months before the dictator and his sons were captured or killed. The heady rush of victory dissipated as “dead-enders” — Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s famous dismissal — waged a bloody sectarian war against the invaders and the new government. The situation deteriorated until 2007, when Mr. Bush dispatched another 20,000 troops to Iraq in a last effort to defeat the insurgencies and restore Baghdad’s command over the country. The “surge” succeeded and the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki now can be said to be in charge. That allowed the U.S. to honor an agreement struck in 2008 by the Bush administration and complete the withdrawal of its forces on schedule this month.

But the cost has been astronomically high. More than 4,400 U.S. soldiers lost their lives, along with several hundred other coalition soldiers. The number of Iraqis killed in the conflict is unknown, but most estimates exceed 100,000 lives. The financial cost is conservatively put at $800 billion and is likely to top $1 trillion.

More damage still has been done to U.S. standing in the world. The shifting rationale for the war, and the failure to find any WMD, did great damage to U.S credibility and has cast a shadow over every U.S. intelligence claim since. The Bush administration’s seeming disregard for international law and contempt for international institutions allowed its adversaries to paint the U.S. as a rogue state and a destabilizing force in international affairs.

The return of stability to Iraq and the apparent resilience of its democracy are helping to soften that record. Future historians will have the final say on whether the war was “worth it,” and their conclusion is likely to rest on Iraq’s development. The signs are worrying.

The speed with which the U.S. military forces pulled out — they did not inform Iraqi partners of their departure to prevent final attacks on the last convoy — is one indicator. More troubling still is the issuing of an arrest warrant for Mr. Tariq al-Hashimi, Iraq’s vice president and one of the country’s most prominent Sunni leaders. He was charged with running a death squad that assassinated security officials and government bureaucrats. That explosive accusation followed the decision by the main Sunni political bloc in Parliament to suspend its participation in the assembly in protest over the monopoly on government posts given to Shiite allies of the prime minister. Fears of the return of bloody sectarianism were confirmed on Thursday when a series of bomb attacks across Baghdad killed at least 60 people and wounded another 176.

Mr. al-Maliki must resist the siren song of sectarianism. He knows that embracing a political agenda that pits one Iraqi against another and using religion as a wedge will destroy his country. The fact that he enjoys the backing of a majority must not become an excuse for embracing authoritarianism. Trumped up charges against rivals, real or imagined, will only undermine his credibility within Iraq and among critical partners and allies.

In truth, the U.S. withdrawal is not the end of the U.S. presence. A strong diplomatic contingent — 1, 500 personnel — remains in the country, along with 700 troops as trainers and no more than 2,000 more soldiers protecting the diplomats. Another 15,000 individuals will be drawing U.S. paychecks; some of them are private security contractors. In addition, at least 4,000 U.S. soldiers will stay just across the border in Kuwait in the event of an emergency.

Hopefully, they will not be needed. A deployment would signal the failure of the plan to create a viable and stable government in Baghdad. It would be a damning verdict on a long and divisive war. It would also, alas, be an all too fitting conclusion to this American misadventure.

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