It took a couple of years and his election as president of the United States, but Barack Obama finally has acknowledged the success of the surge unambiguously. In his Iraq speech at Camp Lejeune on Friday, Obama said American troops had “succeeded beyond expectation.” He hailed the assembled soldiers and Marines for doing their job in toppling Saddam Hussein, in setting up a sovereign government, and in giving the Iraqi people “a hard-earned opportunity to live a better life.”
Obama outlined a scheme for withdrawal not that different from the one George W. Bush left him. With the war ebbing in Iraq, it was inevitable that our force levels would come down. We had already agreed with the Iraqis to exit from the cities this summer and to leave entirely at the end of 2011 (although with the Iraqis, everything is negotiable). Obama’s contribution is to say that we will be down from 142,000 troops to roughly 50,000 by August 2010.
During the campaign, Obama had said he would withdraw U.S. forces within 16 months of taking office. Instead, after 18 months, he will still have a third of our current force in place in Iraq. Obama says “our combat mission will end” in August 2010. But some combat brigades will simply be renamed advisory training brigades or advisory assistance brigades, and one mission of the remaining brigades will be “conducting targeted counter-terrorism missions,” which obviously requires combat.
#ad#As he outflanked Hillary Clinton on the anti-war left during the primaries, Obama talked of removing one or two combat brigades a month. Crucially, his new plan slow-walks the withdrawal this year, so only two brigades will be removed before Iraq’s national election in December. This gives Gen. Ray Odierno what he calls a “robust” level of force to maintain order in the run-up to the election. The withdrawal won’t begin in earnest until January or February of next year.
Obama has said all along that he would listen to his commanders on the ground, and that’s apparently what he’s done, tailoring his preferred policy to address their concerns. The draw-down contemplated next year is probably still too rapid, but the plan is not irresponsible on its face. Our worry is that Iraq will become a back-burner issue for the Obama administration and will not get the focus it deserves and needs when nasty surprises could be — and probably are — still lurking (the Arab-Kurdish dispute in the north is an obvious flash-point).
As Obama noted Friday, the goal of an Iraqi government “that is just, representative, and accountable, and that provides neither support nor safe haven to terrorists” is achievable. The possibility of fostering such an Iraq — with all that it promises for Iraqis, the region, and our strategic interests — has been bought with great American sacrifice. We now know that Obama won’t simply throw away that sacrifice in a fit of anti-war purity. And that’s a start.