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.