President Barack Obama will give the second Oval Office address of his presidency to mark the transition from a U.S. combat role in Iraq, a shift that won’t end the risks to administration policy or to American troops.
Obama made a promise to wind down the war in Iraq a central element of his presidential campaign, and in tonight’s speech he’ll be able to fulfill that vow while also focusing on broader national security goals and the fight in Afghanistan.
Obama “is now able to make good on his pledge,” said Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “But he has to be very cautious in doing so because the United States is by no means out of the woods in Iraq.”
The official shift from Operation Iraqi Freedom to a lower- profile Operation New Dawn means the U.S. changes to an “advise and assist” role for Iraqi forces. Since it began with the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, the war has cost $750 billion and the lives of at least 4,421 Americans. In the U.S., 53 percent of the public said history will judge the war a failure, according to an Aug. 5-8 Gallup poll.
While the number of U.S. troops has dropped below 50,000 and Iraqi forces are taking over responsibility for security, insurgents and extremist groups continue to stage attacks.
War ‘Not Over’
“The Iraq War is not over and it is not ‘won,’” said Anthony Cordesman, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonpartisan research organization in Washington. “This is not a situation where the president is claiming victory.”
Frederick Kagan, director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based policy research group, said the U.S. must maintain a long-term political and military presence in Iraq. The country is still ill-equipped to defend itself, and stability in Iraq is “a core American national security interest,” he said.
In his television address, scheduled for 8 p.m. Washington time, Obama ought to “drop this rhetoric that we’re going to end this war and have all American forces out by December 2011,” Kagan said in a conference call.
There’s a danger of saying “things that can be construed as ‘mission accomplished.’”
Former President George W. Bush’s May 1, 2003, appearance aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln under a “Mission Accomplished” banner became a focal point of war critics as insurgent violence increased and U.S. casualties rose over the next several years.
“You won’t hear those words coming from us,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said yesterday.
Obama’s address comes as the administration is also moving to revive the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.
“It’s kind of a watershed week for the president in the sense that two out of four of the major moving pieces of his Mideast policy are moving into a new stage,” said David Rothkopf, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Gibbs said that, in his speech, the president will put Iraq into “a bigger context of what this drawdown means for our national security efforts both in Afghanistan and in Southeast Asia, and throughout the world as we take the fight directly to al-Qaeda.”
The transition also means that “the responsibility of charting the future of Iraq, first and foremost, belongs to the Iraqis,” Gibbs said.
Focus on Afghanistan
As the U.S. has decreased its footprint in Iraq, Obama has shifted personnel and resources to Afghanistan, which the president has called the “epicenter” of the terrorist threat to the U.S.
Stephen Hadley, Bush’s national security adviser, said in an interview that the former president’s decision to deploy more than 20,000 extra troops in early 2007 to quell violence and provide greater security in such places as Baghdad and Anbar Province helped create conditions allowing for the withdrawal.
“For the Obama administration, Iraq has gone from a problem to be shed, to a burden to be borne, to finally, in the words of Vice President Biden, ‘an opportunity for a success’ for this administration,” he said.
“I’ll be the first to give them credit, but they in turn need to credit President Bush for the surge” of troops that “was essential to get the violence down,” Hadley said.
Call to Bush
Obama called Bush this morning from Air Force One as the president traveled to Fort Bliss in Texas to meet with U.S. troops, Bill Burton, deputy press secretary, told reporters.
In advance of Obama’s address, House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio will speak to a convention of the American Legion and remind the veterans group that Obama criticized Bush’s escalation.
“This day belongs to our troops, whose courage and sacrifices have made the transition to a new mission in Iraq possible,” Boehner will say, according to excerpts released by his office. “Some leaders who opposed, criticized, and fought tooth-and-nail to stop the surge strategy now proudly claim credit for the results.”
Obama is traveling this morning to Fort Bliss, Texas, home of the 1st Armored Division, to meet with soldiers, many of who have returned from Iraq. More than 200,000 troops have been trained at the base in El Paso, Texas, and sent to Iraq since 2003.
The number of U.S. military personnel swelled to about 170,000 in 2006 and 2007 during the height of the Iraqi insurgency. The U.S. has withdrawn 70,000 troops in the past year and closed 500 bases as part of the drawdown. The Iraqi Security Forces, with its 660,000 personnel, have been in the lead for more than a year now.
While recent high-profile attacks are “a concern,” none of them “come anywhere close to destabilizing the government or the country,” U.S. Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters traveling with him to Stuttgart, Germany. “We’re way beyond that.”