WASHINGTON — President Obama Tuesday night told an American public weary of war that it is time to “turn the page” on the war in Iraq. And although he said the formal end of US combat operations in Iraq would allow the military to turn fuller attention to the war in Afghanistan, Mr. Obama also repeated his pledge to begin a drawdown of troops in Afghanistan next summer.
In what was only the second prime-time address of his presidency from the White House, Obama appeared to acknowledge that he was speaking to an audience that is now much more preoccupied with the state of the economy than with the two wars he inherited. From the outset of the speech, the president set a theme of refocusing American energies on the home front.
“Today, our most urgent task is to restore our economy and put the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs back to work,” Obama said in his 20-minute address. Paying tribute to the more than 1.5 million American service members he said have served in Iraq over the course of seven years of war, he said the nation must now “tackle [our] challenges at home with as much energy and grit and sense of common purpose as our men and women in uniform who have served abroad.”
“In the days to come,” he added, this restoration of America’s economic might “must be our central mission as a people, and my central responsibility as president.”
Yet despite this focus on a return to “nation building at home,” Obama also emphasized that the US role in Iraq would continue – although now under a civilian lead. And, he said, this “milestone” of a transition from combat operations to civilian-led partnership with the Iraqis should “serve as a message to the world that the United States of America intends to sustain and strengthen our leadership in this young century.”
Tuesday night’s Oval Office address appeared to offer a few hints as to the president’s position on several questions that have arisen recently around the US efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
What if Iraq destabilizes with the departure of US combat forces, and Iraqi officials ask for an extension to the December 2011 deadline for the departure of the remaining 50,000 troops serving in an advisory role? The president appeared to close the door ever tighter on any modification of the US-Iraq agreement signed under former President Bush.
And what if Afghanistan, where American casualties have recently spiked as Obama’s “surge” has taken place, is not ready a year from now for a drawdown of US forces? The president seemed adamant about keeping to his plan for a “transition to Afghan responsibility” for the country’s security beginning in August 2011.
“Make no mistake, this transition will begin” a year from now, he said.
As for Iraq, he stated unequivocally, “All US troops will leave by the end of next year.”
Some political analysts had fretted before the speech that Obama would use the occasion as a “victory lap” in the same way that Mr. Bush famously declared “mission accomplished” for Iraq in May 2003. But Obama seemed more interested in reminding the American people that he was keeping a campaign promise to “end” the war in Iraq responsibly.
In that sense, it seems all the more likely that Obama will stick to the pledges concerning Iraq and Afghanistan that he made in this speech – especially given that the end of 2011 will be less than year from his assumed reelection bid.