Last week, the Obama administration announced the end of U.S. engagement in the Iraq war, honoring a campaign promise and the agreement that U.S. President George W. Bush reached with Baghdad to remove combat forces by the end of 2011.

But violence and instability in Iraq and the region are far from over. And the significance of this event of U.S. withdrawal is unrecognized as the harbinger of a new, different and complicated era in world politics.
The end of the Vietnam War was captured by the image of the last Huey helicopter lifting off the U.S. Embassy in Saigon in 1975. The demise of the Cold War flashed around the world as the “wall” between East and West came tumbling down. The last U.S. troops either boarding aircraft and helicopters or driving south out of Iraq won’t form an iconic moment or historic photo opportunity to be remembered. Yet, the West in particular has entered into a geostrategic place unique in history.
From 1939-89, the dangers to the west were existential. Nazi Germany and Fascist Japan first threatened democracy and freedom overrunning Europe and a good part of the Soviet Union, too.
During the Cold War against the Soviet Union and its allies and Red China as a further enemy, society as we knew it could have been eviscerated by nuclear and thermonuclear weapons. The Soviets (and us) had tens of thousands of these things.
To remind people of the catastrophic damage a thermonuclear bomb (roughly 1,000 times larger in explosive capacity than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki) could do, if a 10-megaton weapon were dropped on the U.S. Capitol or in Parliament Square in London, the craters would have engulfed the Washington Monument and Buckingham Palace.
Today and as much as we worry about a weapon of mass destruction in the hands of terrorists, the dangers to the West aren’t existential. Society isn’t at risk of elimination. Instead, the far greater risks are to our standards of living and future expectations. Both will decline. The twin failures of governments to govern and societies to live within their means have placed economies and financial systems on the top of our national crises lists.
Some Europeans will argue that economics forced the United States out of Iraq and will do so in Afghanistan. That view isn’t fully correct. Even if the United States were flush with cash, war fatigue has set in. Depending how you count the Vietnam War, Afghanistan has been the longest conflict in U.S. history. And in Iraq, U.S. forces had served there for nearly nine years.
Moreover, regional crises are taking on contours of far different hue than during the period of 1939-89. Europe is mired in a eurozone crisis over economics and politics. One scenario could be financial disaster; another a complete rewrite of the attempt to achieve political union that leads to disunion. North Africa from Tunisia through to Israel, Syria and the Persian Gulf is entering a winter of Arab discontent with uncertainty the coin of the realm. As Iran disguises its nuclear ambitions and intent, the gulf is shrouded with unsavory possibilities and contingencies, including military strikes, to ensure Tehran doesn’t cross an atomic threshold.
Despite very guarded optimism on the security front in Afghanistan, governance and development are lagging far behind and too easily could erase a decade of engagement by NATO and others trying to make that divided nation into a viable state. Pakistan is in the midst of a political crisis over the so-called “memogate” mess that could unseat the government. And many in the United States worry about China and its economic and military influence.
This world is surely more complicated and influence is perhaps more difficult to achieve for all concerned. However, for the West, the world isn’t more dangerous in a physical sense. In a political and diplomatic sense, it is more challenging especially as we lack the strategic vision, organization and tools to do the job as well as it needs to be done. This failure, so far, is of both imagination and innovation.
Fortunately, no “mission accomplished” banners will be broken out now that U.S. and coalition troops have left Iraq. And no such banners will fly in Afghanistan when the drawdown is completed there, possibly sooner than promised once next November’s presidential election is decided as neither party has any real stomach to stay the course in far away Afghanistan no matter the lofty rhetoric.
We have entered a new and different era. No dramatic or inspiring symbol will mark this transition. However, if we don’t fully perceive how and why today’s world has so clearly changed and act accordingly, the blood and treasure shed in Iraq and Afghanistan will have been for naught.
Harlan Ullman, an Atlantic Council senior advisor, is chairman of the Killowen Group, which advises leaders of government and business. This column was syndicated by UPI.