For a decidedly antiwar candidate turned reluctant commander-in-chief, President Obama gave a speech predictable in its substance and in keeping with his worldview. There really wasn’t anything new in the speech, and no matter the circumstances — and the gravity of what we achieved in Iraq — we were not going to get anything more from this president on Iraq. He believes it was a “dumb war,” opposed it tooth and nail throughout, and campaigned to end it. He gave this speech so he could say, “I said I’d end it, and I did.”
None of this excuses the content of his speech, but it’s reality. I wanted him to talk about winning or victory, but of course he didn’t. I wanted him to graciously credit former president Bush for implementing the surge strategy and inducing the conditions for our peaceful — and honorable — exit, but he didn’t. And I wanted him to back off of his withdrawal timeline in Afghanistan, but he didn’t. A change on any of those points would have made the speech memorable and/or meaningful, but it didn’t happen.
He referenced all of the above topics — attempting his signature “nuance” — but it didn’t work. His only reference to “victory” came in the final paragraph of the speech, when he said, “In an age without surrender ceremonies, we must earn victory through the success of our partners and the strength of our own nation.” What does that even mean? Re-read it. I have no idea. It seems like he really wanted to say something about winning or success or victory, because he knew it was appropriate, and that quote was the closest he could get.
He mentioned President Bush three times, and the Iraq surge once; but not together, and certainly not substantially. He reminded us that President Bush “supports the troops and loves this country,” just in case that was in doubt. But he did not credit Bush for turning around the war and seeing it through when everyone else — President Obama especially — wanted to head for the exits and leave the country in chaos. His Iraq surge reference came in defense of the surge in Afghanistan, which is a tacit acknowledgment that the Iraq surge worked — but why then couldn’t he just say that?
On the plus side, I was encouraged to hear the president reiterate our enduring commitment to Iraq. I hope he follows through to make sure we solidify the dramatic gains we’ve made there. I also appreciate his support for conditions-based decision making in Afghanistan. He’s still stuck on a July 2011 deadline for starting a withdrawal, but seems willing to loosen that commitment depending on how things shake out on the ground in Afghanistan. This is a positive development.
That said, the timing of the speech shows just how fundamentally committed President Obama really is to timelines. Instead of announcing the end of combat operations exactly on August 31, 2010, the moment could have been much more powerful if he had waited for Iraq to form a new government, and given the speech alongside the next leader of our newest, democratically elected, Middle Eastern ally. Now that’s a moment, and it’s “conditions-based.” But the president was hell-bent on sticking to the technical timeline, regardless of developments in Baghdad.
Finally, he shouldn’t have attempted to weave in an economic message; the words seemed petty and out of place. They were the president’s backhanded way of saying we wasted the last decade on Iraq, rather than fixing our economy. (Minor detail: The president’s stimulus, passed in his first month in office, will cost more than $100 more than the entire cost of the Iraq war.) His economic posturing took the focus off the troops and their accomplishments, and was unnecessary.
— Pete Hegseth is executive director of Vets for Freedom.