President Obama didn't tout false triumphs in his address. As his aides said in advance, there would be no proclamations of a "mission accomplished."
Yet it can't be overlooked that he soft-pedaled the possible dangers ahead. He was right that "the Iraqi people now have lead responsibility for the security of their country"* and that over the last year, Iraq's security forces "have moved into the lead with considerable skill and commitment."
But they have done so, at least until now, with U.S. troops at their back, or their side, and with U.S. planes and "drones" overhead. They—for now, 50,000 troops—will still be there for another 16 months, advising, training, and equipping the Iraqi forces. And U.S. commandos will continue to mount counterterrorism operations (very nearly crossing the gray line between "support" and "combat").
Then, by no later than Dec. 31, 2011, "all U.S. forces"—not just "combat" forces—"are to withdraw from all Iraqi territory, waters and airspace."
These aren't Obama's words. They come, rather, from Article 24 of the Status of Forces Agreement, signed in November 2008 by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and then-U.S. President George W. Bush.
The U.S. government has status-of-forces agreements with every nation that hosts U.S. military personnel. The U.N. resolution authorizing the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq was about to expire when the 2008 SOFA was signed. Article 24 was an Iraqi demand. Had Bush rejected it, there would have been no SOFA, no legal authority, and he would have had to remove all U.S. forces immediately.
The SOFA also required U.S. combat troops to get out of Iraqi towns, villages, and cities by June 30, 2009 (a deadline that was met). In a speech 18 months ago at Camp Lejeune, N.C., Obama declared that all "combat brigades" would leave Iraq, period, by Aug. 31, 2010, as a "responsible transition" between the two SOFA deadlines. *
But the question remains: What will happen to Iraq now and, especially, after the end of next year? It's unclear what "our commitment to Iraq's future" really means. "As our military draws down," Obama said, "our dedicated civilians—diplomats, aid workers, and advisers—are moving into the lead to support Iraq." But such civilians have a less-than-spectacular record when not backed up by U.S. (or multinational) firepower.
The disturbing fact is that even though national elections took place six months ago, Iraq's political factions have been unable to form a government. Obama and especially Vice President Joe Biden have been pushing these factions to get their act together, but power struggles and sectarian rivalries remain so severe that there may be no act in the offing.
By some measures, violence and casualties in Iraq have plunged to their lowest levels since the war began. (By all measures, they are dramatically below their peaks in 2006.) But by other measures, levels haven't changed much at all since 2008 or early '09, and, in any case, they are unacceptably high by the standards of a peaceful civil society.