Most Americans will support President Obama’s call for patience in Afghanistan and his policy of continuing the long-planned drawdown in Iraq.
But there was something bizarre about his entire Iraq speech — it was as if it were being delivered by an exhausted Obama factotum, rather than the animate Obama of old. So we got a flat Iraq / flat Afghanistan / flat hope-and-change recession address. It almost seemed a chore.
Perhaps Obama’s ennui arises from the impossibility of squaring his circle. How could an erstwhile fierce critic of Iraq — as well as his diplomatic team (e.g., Biden with his loud wish to trisect Iraq, and Hillary Clinton with her “suspension of disbelief”)—convince us that Iraq was a “remarkable chapter”?
In September 2007, Senator Obama wanted all combat troops home by March 2008; a little later, he modified that by repeating that the U.S. should “immediately begin to remove our combat troops.” He declared that the surge, which saved Iraq, was not working and would have stopped it had he the power, and, indeed, cut off all funding. The point here is not hypocrisy, but rather an explanation of why Obama tonight seemed so unimpressed with his own argument.
Also, the general framework of withdrawal was scheduled as part of the Bush/Petraeus status of force agreements with the Iraqis. Obama is to be congratulated for keeping to it, but chastised for suggesting that it was his own — and more so for not referencing the surge that made it all possible. So, again, it was a weird moment: Are we supposed to think that after 20 months a president is responsible for his own record (e.g., Bush need not be credited for his lonely, but critical support for the surge that allowed the withdrawal), but not quite responsible when it is inconvenient (Bush must be blamed for leaving a bad economy that Obama’s borrowing cannot cure)?
A few added thoughts: a) Obama warns against “open-ended wars,” as if they are almost animate things. But wars end, not when they reach a rational, previously agreed-upon expiration date, but usually when tough, specific wartime choices are made that lead to victory or end in defeat. One party must decide – for good or bad reasons – that it doesn’t want to fight to win, or simply doesn’t believe it has the resources for victory. To say that “open-ended wars” are undesirable is a banality that offers no guidance for these real-life choices. A better truism is that America should not fight wars it does not intend to win.
b) “Turning a page” is no more wise than promising a withdrawal target date. If Anbar breaks out tomorrow in violence, surely we will turn back a page to offer at least air support, if not more, to Iraqi forces. The terrorists know that as well as we do.
c) The thematic emphasis on closure reminds me of North Vietnam circa 1974. The Communists understood that the agreements of 1973 were no longer to be enforced and therefore it was time to press on to win what they otherwise had not been able to for the past decade. I think we need to bear in mind the Korean, not the Vietnamese, model.
d) I am struck how this text, if put into the mouth of George W. Bush, would be roundly derided by anti-war majorities in the Congress. But Obama knows that, historically, wartime Democratic presidents — Wilson, FDR, Truman, Kennedy, LBJ, Clinton — are given greater leeway in matters of war, based on the supposition that, unlike conservatives, liberals go to war reluctantly and only when it is forced upon them. We already saw that with the sudden left-wing silence on Obama’s Guantanamo, renditions, tribunals, Predators, escalation in Afghanistan, etc. So this is all old hat.
e) I think this is the first time that Obama has invoked things like Lexington or Iwo Jima, something many of us have advocated that he should have done long ago — as tonic to the constant race/class/gender apologetic critique of the country, especially while abroad.
f) So was Iraq worth the cost? And could Obama have cited anything positive other than banalities? In some sense, that was asked post facto of every war — whether it was the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, WWI, Korea, or Vietnam. The truth about Iraq is that, for all the tragedy and the loss, the U.S. military performed a miracle. After nearly seven years, a constitutional government endures in that country. It is too often forgotten that all 23 of the writs for war passed by the Congress in 2002 — from enforcing the Gulf I resolutions and stopping the destruction of the Kurds and Marsh Arabs, to preventing the Iraqi state promotion of terrorism, ending suicide bounties on the West Bank, and stopping Iraq from invading or attacking neighbors or trying to acquire WMD — were met and satisfied by the U.S. military. It is also too often forgotten that, as a result, Libya gave up its WMD program; Dr. Khan’s nuclear franchise was shut down; Syria left Lebanon; and American troops in Saudi Arabia, put there as protection against Saddam, were withdrawn. Perhaps a peep about some of that—especially the idea that in an oil-short world, Saddam Hussein might have been more or less free to do what he pleased again in Iraq. (The verdict is out on Iran; playing a genocidal Hussein regime against it was morally bankrupt. Currently, Shiites participating in consensual government could be as destabilizing to Iran in the long run as Iranian terrorists are to Iraq in the short run.)
Furthermore, the destruction of al-Qaeda in Iraq helped to discredit the entire idea of radical Sunni Islamic terrorists, and the loss of thousands of foreign radical Islamists in Iraq had a positive effect on U.S. security — despite the fallacy that we created them out of thin air by being in Iraq. Kurdistan was, prior to 2003, faced with the continual threat of genocidal attacks by Saddam Hussein; today it is a booming economy. All that would have been impossible without U.S. intervention.
Maybe some of the above was what President Obama meant by a “remarkable chapter,” or what Vice President Biden meant were his administration’s “greatest achievements”?