Like a lot of you, I felt an odd combination of déjà vu and whiplash earlier today at the revival of President Obama’s 2008 election rhetoric about “ending the war” in announcing the formal withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq.

And similarly, I’m aware of the widely noted doubts about whether this really is an end to whatever you want to call our ongoing presence in Iraq, and the equally obvious irony of taking credit for a complete withdrawal after months of negotiations attempting to leave 3,000-5,000 troops (or more) in the country.

But to me, it just proves the point demonstrated since last month by the president’s belatedly rediscovered populism: namely, you can rely on Obama to remember his progressive campaign promises, if only (to paraphrase Churchill) after exhausting all of the possible alternatives.

A bit more seriously, though, I think today’s announcement is more substantial and positive than many in the left blogiverse are giving it credit for being.  For one thing, despite the clamor about the large mercenary force protecting State Department staff, the fact is that if Muqtada as-Sadr’s Mahdi Army launches an insurgency/takeover in Basra or eastern Baghdad next spring, the State Department isn’t going to call in American tanks and airpower to launch a counterassault… which is what happened in 2007 and earlier.  That’s a big difference.

For another, there’s this remark:

Now, even as we remove our last troops from Iraq, we’re beginning to bring our troops home from Afghanistan….  When I took office, roughly 180,000 troops were deployed in both these wars.  And by the end of this year that number will be cut in half, and make no mistake:  It will continue to go down.

I’ve always felt that Obama’s “surge” strategy in Afghanistan was designed to achieve the same goal as Bush had in Iraq: to make our still-inevitable withdrawal seem a little less like we’re leaving with our national tail between our legs.  Obama’s commitment, if only verbally, to ongoing troop reductions there seems to back up that hunch.

(Yes, I know that juxtaposed with his policies in Libya, Pakistan, central Africa and elsewhere, this only means that the military future Obama envisions is dominated by shadow-wars fought by drones and special forces rather than the Army and Marines.  I didn’t say the guy was Gandhi.)

I also believe that the troop-extension talks which finally fell through with today’s announcement didn’t reflect a desire for a continued military role so much as the reflexive, almost servile flank-protection that has characterized Obama’s domestic political strategy.  I say this not to spin Obama as a pacifist but because, as a blogger who followed events in Iraq more closely than most from 2003 through 2008, I saw the Bush-Cheney mirage of establishing an American client state there evaporate too long ago for any subsequent president to believe in it.

This is hard for some progressives to accept; at times, they seem to have more faith in the neocon vision of imperial domination than even the neocons themselves.  But I recall Donald Rumsfeld visiting Baghdad in 2005, attempting to pressure Ibrahim Jaafari (the prime minister of Iraq’s newly elected, Shiite-run government) to halt the purges of Sunni Muslims from the army and police forces.

At a time when Jaafari and his regime literally depended on U.S military protection for their lives, he told Rumsfeld to pound sand — just as his successor, Nouri al-Maliki, has consistently done in response to similar lobbying.  Similarly, the nightmare visions painted by Western liberals of oil giants imposing larcenous production-sharing agreements on a helpless occupied Iraq have never come to pass.

If America couldn’t impose its will on Iraqis with nearly 200,000 troops in the country six years ago, all that’s been left in the time since has been pretense… a politically impotent occupier outmaneuvered by its would-be proxies into serving their corrupt needs, rather than the other way around.

The only thing an extension of the formal U.S. military presence could achieve would have been was continued life support for that pretense.  Instead, the plug has mercifully been pulled, and that’s a welcome development.