President Obama’s characteristic ambivalence about American purpose and power was the unstated theme running through last night’s Oval Office address. As is often the case, what the president actually said was in some respect less significant that what he could not bring himself to say. And the messages that the president did send over the past week are likely to confuse the American people, the foreign policy and defense bureaucracies, and allies and adversaries alike.
1. Lessons Learned. The president’s continued distortion of the nature and success of the surge strategy remains an insuperable obstacle to applying the lessons learned to ongoing and future military operations. It’s not a matter of the president’s admitting that his own judgment was profoundly mistaken, but rather of his acknowledging that the surge was a radical shift of overall strategy that brought ends and means into proper balance for the first time. Protecting the Iraqi population — correctly identified as the conflict’s center of gravity — meant moving troops out of isolated Forward Operating Bases and seizing back the initiative from the insurgents at the certain cost of higher American casualties in the short term.
Yet President Obama persists in misstating the nature of the surge, minimizing its decisive effects, and misplacing its true authorship. “The Americans who served in Iraq” “shifted tactics,” he said last night. That was not the case, of course. The surge was a political decision made in the Oval Office and carried out on the ground by fresh military leadership, whose failed predecessors had treated a light footprint and force protection as ends rather than means.
2. Grand Strategy. Last night’s speech continues to treat al-Qaeda and its Taliban allies as discrete threats wholly unconnected to any broader ideological underpinnings. Both are manifestations of the armed wing of political Islam, a violent ideology whose existence this administration continues to deny. Yet how does the administration justify the sacrifices called for in Afghanistan — where 19 Americans were killed since Saturday — without linking these sacrifices to broader aims and wider threats? And when will the administration begin treating the American people as grown-ups by honestly acknowledging the source and nature of threats we’re reminded of every day of at every airport and government office?
3. Iraq’s Future. Last night’s speech marks a substantial improvement over the president’s weekly radio address, in which he gave the unmistakable impression that the Iraqis are entirely on the own: “Like any sovereign nation, Iraq is free to chart its own course. And by the end of next year, all of our troops will be home.” As he is wont to do, the president walked back this remark with an equally unqualified assertion: “This new approach reflects our long-term partnership with Iraq — one based on mutual interest and mutual respect.” What the Iraqis are meant to take from this contradiction is anybody’s guess, but the same confusion also applies closer to home. To cite just one example, how far is the U.S. committed to defending Iraq against the relentless Iranian subversion that the president’s aides acknowledge?
4. Presidential Guidance. Anyone who’s worked in official Washington knows that presidential statements are the gold standard for the officials who are charged with developing and carrying out policy. The president’s words are quoted as the basis for practically every initiative being considered, even if the real stakes are merely inter-office or inter-agency disputes at State or Defense. When the president leaves matters unclear, as in this case, the result is often freelancing or muddle or policy paralysis. How — and how much — does Iraq still matter, as a matter of both moral responsibility and regional strategy? For instance, what are U.S. responsibilities for Iraq’s internally displaced (2.7 million people) and refugee (2 million) populations, categories that include most of Iraq’s pre-war Christian minority?
5. Historical Perspective. It’s not enough to acknowledge the Iraq War as “a remarkable chapter in the history of the United States” and immediately conclude: “Now, it’s time to turn the page.” No one expects this president to revise his opposition to the war or to deliver a definitive historical judgment on its costs and benefits, which in any case means weighing incommensurables. But some appreciation for the progress Iraq has made — and some acknowledgment of the toxic legacy of the Republic of Fear — would have been welcome, especially as measured against Iraq’s neighbors. For instance, the nonpartisan Brookings Iraq Index cites measurable progress in various areas — including on its Index of Political Freedom, which ranks Iraq fourth in the region, behind Israel, Lebanon, and Morocco but well ahead of such U.S. allies as Jordan and Egypt, not to mention bottom-dwellers like Saudi Arabia and most of the Gulf states. And Iraq’s hard-fought constitution, notwithstanding some very real defects, is miles ahead of any regional counterpart in fostering democracy and some respect for human rights.
As a candidate for office, Barack Obama liked to say that “words matter.” As president, he would do well to remember that his words matter still more.
– John F. Cullinan has written about Iraq for NRO since 2002.