Obama hands Iraq to Iraqis, Sort of;
al-Maliki Declares Independence

Some wag observed of the camel that it is “an animal designed by a committee.” Likewise, the speech that President Obama gave on the end of the US direct combat mission in Iraq last night appeared to have been designed by a committee. Intended to please everyone, it likely altogether pleased no one.

With regard to particular sections of the speech, I was happy, I must say, to see this paragraph early on:

“From this desk, seven and a half years ago, President Bush announced the beginning of military operations in Iraq. Much has changed since that night. A war to disarm a state became a fight against an insurgency. Terrorism and sectarian warfare threatened to tear Iraq apart. Thousands of Americans gave their lives; tens of thousands have been wounded. Our relations abroad were strained. Our unity at home was tested.”

At least, the president acknowledged the human cost of the war, for both the Iraqis and the Americans. One can fruitfully contrast the honesty of these words with the petty insistence by the Bushies that there never was a guerrilla war or a civil war in Iraq. When violence finally began subsiding in Iraq, the Bush White House childishly wrote a letter to NBC news crowing about the change and again upbraiding the network for having dared use the phrase ‘civil war’ about the Sunni-Shiite fighting in 2006-2007. But that the civil war subsided when the Shiites won it does not actually imply that there was no civil war at all. This logical nuance was forever beyond the Bush apparatchiks.

The natural place for Obama to go from here was to a thorough debunking of the Republican war propaganda. Instead, the president almost seemed eager to put the war behind him and behind us, and to more or less let the Republican Party off the hook for driving the US over a cliff.

Instead, Obama shifted attention to the apolitical subject of American soldiers’ valor and the increasing readiness of Iraqi troops. Bad novelists often neglect actually to resolve the outstanding issues raised in their art in favor of a melodramatic ending that tugs at the heart strings.

President Obama also said,

‘”This year also saw Iraq hold credible elections that drew a strong turnout. A caretaker administration is in place as Iraqis form a government based on the results of that election. Tonight, I encourage Iraq’s leaders to move forward with a sense of urgency to form an inclusive government that is just, representative, and accountable to the Iraqi people. And when that government is in place, there should be no doubt: the Iraqi people will have a strong partner in the United States. Our combat mission is ending, but our commitment to Iraq’s future is not.’

The issue with the Iraqi elections was not their credibility but their inconclusiveness. They produced a hung parliament. Any time you have to talk about a caretaker government 5 months after an election, there is something profoundly wrong. And, urging the Iraqis to form a government quickly when the US is delaying things by attempting to install its favorite, Iyad Allawi, in power or at least in power over the security forces, leaves the audience thinking that the fault lies with the Iraqis rather than with continued American interventionism. Presumably Iraqis will eventually form a government. But with the US gone, as it soon will be militarily, will Iraq have any further elections? Is it doomed to a long-term cycle of hung parliaments where there is no majority? I am not sure where ‘accountability’ comes into this process. In any case, this passage seemed to put a brave face on a disastrous political stagnation.

Obama even praised George W. Bush, not for launching the war but for trite matters such as an alleged Bush devotion to US security. But wouldn’t foreign adventures have risked US security?

Obama gave us a couple of over-optimistic paragraphs on how well the Afghanistan war is going, combined with a pledge to begin drawing down US forces in summer 2011. There is that camel again. Presumably the language about the Afghan struggle against al-Qaeda was intended to please hawks, while the pledge to begin withdrawing next year was for the purpose of reassuring liberals. It is not clear, however, that practical success in Afghanistan can be achieved through this sort of rhetorical compromise.

The conclusion we are urged to draw on the Iraq war is that it is now an Iraqi problem, the US is determined to withdraw, and we couldn’t afford more Iraq War anyway given our collapsed economy. Obama used this bankruptcy of the nation as a segue to our economic problems to dwell on domestic policy and some length, as though, having briefly adverted to the catastrophe Washington had visited on the Iraqis and on us in the US public, he was now eager to change the subject and talk about domestic issues. He emphasized the need to regrow the American middle class, devastated by years of poor economic policy.

The speech could have been a poignant moment, but Obama’s quilted-together neutrality took the edge off of it.

Still, the policy Obama announced, of steady US withdrawal from Iraq, is something that Arab publics say they want and say will improve their relations with the US. And mostly withdrawing (President Obama is correct that he has brought 100,000 US troops out of Iraq) is better than remaining in Iraq in force, and it is ‘way better than like invading more countries.

It is an achievement, of which the president can be proud. But freighting down the speech with bipartisanship (he isn’t in office, and hasn’t achieved what he has achieved primarily because of Republican support) made it forgettable, a mere set of throwaway campaign lines.

With regard to the Iraqi reaction, Shiite leader Ammar al-Hakim pledged that the US troop withdrawal would not affect Iraq’s foreign policy. He was also at pains to mollify Kuwait, which is apparently in a panic that the US withdrawal will let Iraq reemerge as a bullying regional power.

Caretaker Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki declared that Iraq has now regained its sovereignty and is now independent. He is trying to take the credit so as to remain in power. But he has complained about the Americans trying to block him from a second term, so maybe this is wishful thinking.

Certainly, Iraq is on the road to being an independent nation, though how much American neo-imperialism is imposed on Baghdad remains to be seen. Now if only Iraq had a government.

22 Responses

  1. Once again President Obama´s predilection for defining American politics as disagreements among gentlemen regarding tee times at the country club, disagreements that may be resolved through earnest efforts to avoid unpleasantness, does major damage to all efforts to resolve the underlying contradictions and conflicts plaguing our political system.

  2. Finally an analysis of why there is a hung parliament in Iraq. However, I still think that most of it has to be attributed to the lack of will on the side of Iraq’s political class.
    As for President Obama, I think you are being somewhat unfair: It should be clear by now that he doesn’t concern himself with the kind of political warfare and partisan bashing which defined the Bush administration. He COULD have blamed the real culprits of this mess, but he wisely chose not to – because the one thing undecided voters find so appealing in Obama is his devotion to rational, pragmatic politics, as opposed to the partisan trench warfare of the Bush and Clinton eras. And he should be given credit for it, especially since the obstructionist strategy of the GOP is rewarded, while Obama’s (painfully) measured approach takes a beating.
    But Obama is solving problems. Republicans did not, do not, and will not. Not in Iraq, not in Afghanistan, not in the U.S.

  3. Obama said: “Thousands of Americans gave their lives; tens of thousands have been wounded. Our relations abroad were strained. Our unity at home was tested.”

    Prof. Cole said: “At least, the president acknowledged the human cost of the war, for both the Iraqis and the Americans.”

    …But Prof., don’t you think he means thousands of Americans gave their lives while tens of thousands (of Americans) were wounded?

    I don’t see him mentioning the loss of a single Iraqi life.

    • “the president acknowledged the human cost of the war, for both the Iraqis and the Americans”

      Iraqis are not mentioned in the passage quoted. Honest mistake, or is Prof (vicariously) compensating for the president?

  4. Juan, I am an avid reader of Yours and for the most part agree with Your views but I don’t understand how even You spout this nonsense about about a complete removal of American Forces from Iraq. We have and are continuing to build Hard Facilities in Iraq and We aren’t leaving regardless of all Our pronouncements or the wishes of most Iraqi’s. We just simply intend to stay till the oil runs out and when You have the most powerfull Nation in the World in Your Country with Our Military might, We continue to be an Occupier. Ask the People of Japan how much control They have over Our Military presence on Okinawa.

  5. President Obama’s signature characteristic has been his staunch commitment to bipartisanship and the avoidance of political confrontation. Since he came to power, he has been so busy putting “stuff”—primarily, Republican malfeasance—behind us that he has failed to govern.

  6. Professor Cole – in the quote you put forth and said you liked no where did Obama talk about the many Iraqi deaths and injuries, he was only referring to those of the Americans nor did he mention there was a civil war but a fight against an insurgency involving sectarianism and terrorism. Bush would have done the same thing and probably with a lot more pizzazz.

    Nor did Obama, as I see it, pledge to draw down the troops in Afghanistan. Here’s what he said: “And, next July, we will begin a transition to Afghan responsibility. The pace of our troop reductions will be determined by conditions on the ground, and our support for Afghanistan will endure. But make no mistake: this transition will begin – because open-ended war serves neither our interests nor the Afghan people’s.” He said that’s a transition date and what we’ll do will depend on the “conditions on the ground.” Hardly is that withdrawing troops.

    You also don’t mention that the plan to take the troops from Iraq was Bush’s.

    Finally, Iraq is no more an independent nation now than it was right after we invaded. With our largest embassy in the world being stationed there with its own armies, and our 50,000 non-combat combat brigades stationed there, it is an American satrap.

  7. When Maliki told Iraqis that their country was sovereign and independent, did anyone else see this as foreshadowing that he might attempt a coup? Such tactics, after all, are the right of sovereign nations (ie. if such a thing happened this would be none of Obama’s business).

    I think Obama does genuinely want to withdraw all US troops from Iraq before 2012 (the political cost of not doing so would be immense–his base is disillusioned enough). Who knows if he’ll succeed. The interests which would prefer the US to stay, clearly, are capitalized in the tens–and possibly hundreds–of billions of dollars.

    Maliki, I predict, won’t surrender the prime ministership until he has no other choice. And, frankly, I don’t see what combination of forces will push him out.

  8. Obama did not acknowledge the whole package of the Iraq invasion, beginning with the ‘shock and awe’ response to the claiming of Kuwait by Iraq. Then the sanctions literally made a chaos of Iraqi society, killing 5-8 million children under five years of age. How can he ignore this barbarous crime against humanity at the start of ‘his’ war in Iraq. With a green zone and many,many bases and soldiers in country?

  9. Didn’t the Americans foist upon the Iraqis a constitution which requires a supermajority to get some things passed? If so, Iraq’s is not the sort of hung Parliament now enjoyed by the Brits and the Aussies, but the sort of constitutional gridlock the Yanks are stuck in right now.

  10. If his speech was mostly directed to domestic audience before the election, the point he almost got by “ending the Iraq war” was lost by his insistence on “repeating its success” in Afghanistan. I am afraid he also insulted his voters that elected him on his anti Iraq war platform by somehow legitimizing it, praising Bush while saying he was against it. He was against it, yet he described it in word Bush himself would have, and Bush is good. What happened to his election speeches? Not praising Bush at this time should not have caused him problems. Right? He would still have gotten us to still be afraid of Al Qaeda at the Afghan/Pakistan border. He said that Al Qaeda is still plotting against us as he speaks, so an average listener would ask, how could have Iraq been a success if we are back to square one with al Qaeda? All we hear on TV from Crowely and other politicians is that, it is Al Qaeda that is bombing in Iraq now.
    As for those voters that where worried also about the human tall of innocent civilians of our “enemy”, it was a slap in the face to not even mention them. I wish he read his speech?
    Can the fragile economy afford repeating something that didn’t work?
    As for the bit that was directed to Iraqis and perhaps the Arab world. Iraqis actually could not have watched it because they only get 4 hours of electricity a day. We freed Iraqis from electricity and basic needs too.
    But, If they had electrify and watched the speech, they would have said the same thing that one our soldiers said when he was asked what he thought on his way out. He said: “I never thought that they would be blowing themselves up by the time we leave”.
    I actually do fear that the Al Qaeda’s plot that President Obama is surging against might have just gotten bigger by the lack of acknowledgment of the mistake done to Iraq and the lack of remorse for Iraqis lives lost. I pray that my fear is not legitimate.

  11. the gist of the speech more or less carries forward the Bush theme intact. the whole notion that we could be again a “united” America was glibly intoned in the speech. the crimes of the Bush regime are not going to fade away, no matter how nicely Bush 3 orates or pretends Iraq is “finished.”

    the segue from Bush To Obama/Bush lite is what is implicitly highlighted by Obama. the vacuousness of the whole speech. Orwellian. Repeat a lie, lather, repeat a lie, lather.

    and all along I thought Bush couldn’t serve a 3rd term. how ignorant of me.

    sad case, all around. the farcical nature of the whole Presidency is what Bush stood for and now Obama appears to revel and burnish such inanites. what will be remembered are things like “preventive war, torture and Real Americans”. also, the 50,000 troops left in Iraq just don’t exist obviously. more Word games from these “Masters of the Universe.”

    just wait till November when Bipartisanship rears its’ ugly head for Obama. then we’ll see “justice,” bipartisan-style.

  12. Someone has to say it – Bush was right.
    Mission Accomplished.
    Emigrating USA bases from Saudi Arabia, in which said bases were destabilizing an important oil ally, to the next best oil producing/have lots of reserves nation, has
    been a success.
    The United States now has permanent bases in the heart of the Middle East.
    Those who think that 4000 casualties (Iraqis do not count) is excessive do not understand the concept of Manifest Destiny.
    Those who accept the justifications:
    Iraq has no Air Force (only because it was destroyed), no Army (disbanded), no Economic Base (dismantled) are apologists.

  13. How many children did the United States kill in Iraq? Our president speaks about the terrible toll on our soldiers. Then he mentions offhand the “resilience” of Iraqis, making sure to let them know we’re not done with them yet. We’ve made a commitment, and “make no mistake,” we’re going to stick to it. In other words, we can’t let a government form there that’s unfriendly to our strategic interests. He tells us our combat mission is over. We went to war against a country that hadn’t even threatened to attack us, all so we could control their energy resources. We need oil to make the great ecomony run. That’s America’s commitment. That’s why so many people died, were wounded, tortured, displaced, sent into despair. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad those troops are coming home. But they never should have been there in the first place! It’s insane. Our government murders civilians with impunity and sends our young men off to die for a war that means nothing except to those who profit from it, the rich, the powerful, the lying, wretched souls who sin against everything that’s holy, who kill children. They don’t care, either. They have no compassion. All they care about is their money, their war profiteering, their filthy lies. May God make them pay for their sins, for shedding innocent blood.

  14. [...] capitalist news to cover what will attract advertising dollars.  Add to this the fact that, unlike the Iraq “withdrawal” story or the “mosque at Ground Zero” controversy, the disaster in Pakistan was not a political [...]

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