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Pres. Obama’s excellent Iraq speech, a couple more thoughts

Pres. Obama’s excellent Iraq speech, a couple more thoughts
By Eric Black

Sorry to be so slow. I earlier promised a couple more reactions to Obama’s speech, at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, (full text, as prepared) announcing his plan to draw U.S. troops in Iraq down to 35,000-50,000 by August 2010, and withdraw all U.S. troops by the end of 2011.

Obama says the troops in that “residual force” will not be combat troops. I think we should reserve judgment and see whether they are doing any fighting. I assume it means that they will not be on patrol around Iraq. (I agree with John McCain, who has said that as long they are in Iraq, they might see combat, especially if they are attacked.)

But, quibbles aside, this was an excellent speech. Here are a couple of things I especially like about it.

1. The firmest commitment yet to having all the troops out on a fairly short timetable. This fulfills, and I would say actually goes beyond, the commitments he made during the campaign. Obama always talked about getting the “combat” troops out, but always kept open the residual forces option. I don’t recall him committing to get all the troops out. If he fulfills that commitment, it should help challenge the assumption that the war was all about permanent occupation.

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Obama also said during the campaign, in response to the sterile deadlines-can-only-be-set-in-consultation-with-the-commanders-on-the-ground canard, that of course he would consult the commanders, but as commander-in-chief he would first tell them that the policy of the United States would be to responsibly end the war. He seems to have done exactly that and, as he mentioned in the speech, the new plan, which differs slightly from his campaign promise, is the result of those consultations.

2. The respectful tone toward the Iraqi people. Including:

“So to the Iraqi people, let me be clear about America’s intentions. The United States pursues no claim on your territory or your resources. We respect your sovereignty and the tremendous sacrifices you have made for your country. We seek a full transition to Iraqi responsibility for the security of your country.”

No claim on your resources, of course, means on your oil. Some Iraqis may be skeptical, but his remarks were respectful. If the troops really leave, the skepticism will decline. Someday, perhaps soon, the Iraqi government will take some action relating to oil that is unfavorable to U.S. oil companies. That will be the big test of whether Obama meant what he said.

It could get more serious than that. I don’t know what kind of secret agreements have been reached, but no one can really rule out the possibility that, left truly to its own devices, the Shiite-dominated government of Iraq will become a close ally of Iran. If Iraq is truly to have full sovereignty, it can choose its own allies.

It’s true, of course, that ex-Pres. Bush often addressed similar respectful-sounding messages to the Iraqi people and claimed that the war wasn’t about oil nor permanent occupation. Most Iraqis didn’t believe him because the tone didn’t match the policies that ensued. Today, the Iraqi people got more words from Obama. But it won’t be long before they see changes in policy to back them up.

3. The non-blaming discussion of the lessons of the war. I may be a little hung up on this, but I appreciated that he resisted the obvious temptation to engage in Bush-bashing. To his long-term credit, Obama came out against the war before it began, and warned of the exact kinds of unintended consequences that occurred. This turned out to be the single biggest difference between him and his chief rivals for the Dem nomination, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, both of whom voted to authorize the war. Obama said countless times during the campaign that the war should not have been authorized nor waged.

(From Obama’s 2002 speech: “I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaida.”

Today, Obama didn’t say that this was a war he inherited from his predecessor. Yes, that’s obvious, but in his Congressional speech, he used the term “inherited” to describe several fiascos left over from the Bush years. There are still plenty of hard-liners who are going to find the Obama Iraq policy hard to take. But it would be harder to take if he rubbed their noses in their past mistakes. It would be easy and tempting to do, but Obama, wisely, will leave that to others.

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Still, the discussion of the lessons of Iraq left all the obvious implications:

“There are many lessons to be learned from what we’ve experienced. We have learned that America must go to war with clearly defined goals, which is why I’ve ordered a review of our policy in Afghanistan. We have learned that we must always weigh the costs of action, and communicate those costs candidly to the American people, which is why I’ve put Iraq and Afghanistan into my budget. We have learned that in the 21st century, we must use all elements of American power to achieve our objectives, which is why I am committed to building our civilian national security capacity so that the burden is not continually pushed on to our military. We have learned that our political leaders must pursue the broad and bipartisan support that our national security policies depend upon, which is why I will consult with Congress and in carrying out my plans. And we have learned the importance of working closely with friends and allies, which is why we are launching a new era of engagement in the world.

The starting point for our policies must always be the safety of the American people. I know that you – the men and women of the finest fighting force in the history of the world – can meet any challenge, and defeat any foe. And as long as I am your Commander-in-Chief, I promise you that I will only send you into harm’s way when it is absolutely necessary, and provide you with the equipment and support you need to get the job done. That is the most important lesson of all – for the consequences of war are dire, the sacrifices immeasurable.”

Obama looked and sounded good. I heard some commentary suggesting that the Marines in the audience gave him a subdued reception. What I noticed was that he didn’t milk the applause when it occurred. He didn’t seem like someone who needed to hear the applause, but someone who needed to lay out his policy, then get back to work.