President Obama has made several commendable decisions as commander in chief: He has extended his campaign’s timeline for withdrawal from Iraq, and decided at several points last year to send additional troops to Afghanistan to fight a war that many in his party had already deemed hopeless. The problem has been that he has been unwilling to speak frequently and frankly to the American people about his strategy for success in either war.
Distracted by pressing economic issues at home and cognizant of his base’s discomfort with his decisions, he has shied away from defending his own policies, leaving the enunciation of that strategy to squabbling surrogates. Thus, the mere fact that he delivered this Oval Office address is a positive development – one that, we may hope, will be repeated more regularly.
As Bill Kristol notes, we should not have expected a president who campaigned for office touting his opposition to the war to deliver a triumphant victory speech admitting the error of his ways. Tonight, the president made clear that he thought the Iraq War was a misguided effort that cost the country dearly, but he also praised what Iraqis and Americans have been able to achieve. He also pointed out that the U.S. commitment to Iraq is not ending even as our role transitions to a new phase.
President Obama will likely be given an opportunity next year to prove that he is serious about this commitment, as most observers expect the new Iraqi government, once formed, to request a continued U.S. military presence beyond 2011. The Obama administration should realize that rejecting such an Iraqi request would put at risk the advances that our troops have fought and died for in Iraq.
On Afghanistan, the president’s rhetoric was again strong, but was coupled with a rejection of “open-ended war” and the need for Afghans to help themselves. It is worth comparing this to Secretary Gates’s remarks in a speech earlier on Tuesday to the American Legion National Convention in Milwaukee. His voice quaking with emotion at times, Gates spoke movingly about what the military has accomplished in Iraq and what remains to be done in Afghanistan. He said of July 2011, “If the Taliban really believe that America is heading for the exits next summer in large numbers, they will be deeply disappointed and surprised to find us very much in the fight. And the realization that we will still be there after July 2011 aggressively going after them will, I believe, impact their morale and willingness to continue resisting their government and the international coalition.”
Let’s hope that Secretary Gates was speaking for President Obama in Milwaukee. What our men and women in uniform have achieved on our behalf in Iraq should be a lesson for those questioning the chances of success in Afghanistan. Much as there were low points in Iraq, there will be trying times in the coming months in Afghanistan. However, just as it is in our interest to see a peaceful, democratic Iraq emerge in the heart of the Middle East, it is in our interest to ensure that Afghanistan does not once again become a haven for terrorists and that the Afghan people have the opportunity to choose their own destiny.
It is important for President Obama to make clear that he is willing to make the necessary commitments to achieve this. More statements like those from the secretary of defense and the president are in order in the coming months if they are to reassure the American people, our allies, and our enemies that we are serious about our commitment to victory.
– Jamie M. Fly is executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative.