Why is Barack Obama giving a speech on Iraq?
To mark the end of U.S. combat missions in the nation George W. Bush invaded over seven years ago, the president on Tuesday night will deliver
a high-profile address from the Oval Office. Speeches from the Oval Office are usually reserved for the most pressing and profound matters of a presidency. And this partial end of the Iraq war -- the United States will still have 50,000 troops stationed there
-- is a significant event. It demonstrates that Obama has kept a serious campaign promise: to end this war.
But with the economy foundering -- many of the recent stats are discouraging -- most Americans are probably not yearning above all for a report on Iraq and likely will not be all that impressed with Obama's promise-keeping on this front. The main issue remains jobs, especially as the congressional elections approach.
Summer is essentially done. It's back-to-school and back-to-work time for many of us. But on Obama's first days after his Martha Vineyard's vacation, he's devoting (at least in public) more time and energy to foreign policy matters than the flagging economy. Worried Democrats must be livid. (Most House Democrats are still campaigning in their districts and are not yet back in Washington to gripe about their president.)
Wars are the most significant stuff of a presidency. There's not enough media attention devoted to the Afghanistan war. But politically there's little or no payoff for an Iraq war address. Obama can't brag, "Mission accomplished." (In fact, on Monday, press secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama would not be using those words.) He can't declare victory. He can only declare a murky end to a murky war. That's not going to rally the Democrats' base or win over independents. It was not mandatory for Obama to deliver such a high-profile speech. Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Baghdad to commemorate this milestone. The administration has conducted other events regarding the end of combat operations. It's been duly noted.
The Iraq war, though, raises tough questions for Obama. For example, at the White House press briefing on Monday, Gibbs was peppered with queries about whether Obama believes Bush's so-called surge worked or did not. Gibbs did not provide a direct answer -- and the question is indeed more complicated than many people assume. But Obama, who did not support the surge, clearly does not want to be mired in a debate over it.
I asked Gibbs about an apparent contradiction in Obama's position. When he was campaigning for the presidency in 2007, he said
, without uncertainty, that the Iraq war had rendered the United States less safe:
I don't believe that we are safer now than we were after 9/11 because we have made a series of terrible decisions in our foreign policy. We went into Iraq, a war that we should have never authorized and should not have been waged. It has fanned the flames of anti-American sentiment. It has, more importantly, allowed us to neglect the situation in Afghanistan.
Yet last week, Obama cut a video
thanking GIs who had served in Iraq, or are serving there now, saying that their work has "made America safer." Which is it? Was the United States safer or not safer due to the Bush-Cheney war? As an opponent of the war, Obama had an unambiguous stance. Now, as commander in chief, he understandably does not want to say that American GIs sacrificed -- and were sacrificed -- in vain. So he praises the soldiers for an achievement he does not, or did not, believe was real. Such rhetorical gymnastics, even if necessary, do not make for a clear message. In reply to my question, Gibbs said he would have to review the president's remarks in the video -- a classic press secretary dodge.
Obama opposed the war in 2002 as a state senator and did the same as a U.S. senator and presidential candidate. In part because of that opposition, he ended up inheriting the war. Obama has commendably done what he said he would do: end it. Still, it's a tricky topic for him to talk about. Why assume this no-win mission? Moreover, Iraq, no doubt, reminds people (that is, voters) of another topic: Afghanistan. And that remains an unpopular war, predicated on assorted dilemmas that this administration has not sorted out. As the final stretch of the campaign season begins, why bring up Afghanistan in such an explicitly implicit manner?
The Iraq war was a mistake. That remains Obama's view, according to Gibbs. And though he has ended combat missions, there is no good drum to beat. (I'd bet he won't dwell on the fact that tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians -- if not a lot more -- lost their lives due to the war.) The economy is in peril. The president's party is in peril. There's not a lot of time before Judgment Day. If the Dems lose seats in Congress, Obama will confront a much tougher slog in Washington. Given all that, he must be exceedingly savvy and efficient in how he invests whatever political capital he holds. The end of the official war in Iraq is a historic moment. It does warrant reflection and notice. But for a president wrestling with a lousy economy and facing an uneasy electorate, this is not the ground where he should be mounting an offensive.
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