Obama's frustrating, unfocused speech on Iraq.

Military analysis.
Aug. 31 2010 11:14 PM

Lost in a Muddle

Obama's frustrating, unfocused speech on Iraq.

President Barack Obama's Oval Office address.
President Barack Obama's Oval Office address

President Barack Obama's speech from the Oval Office Tuesday night was a strange muddle—a televised prime-time address that lacked a bottom line, a consistent theme, a clear road to the future.

He announced the end of combat operations in Iraq, right on schedule. But he equivocated on what comes next in that much-improved but still war-torn land.

On the one hand: "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."

On the other hand: "Through this remarkable chapter in the history of the United States and Iraq, we have met our responsibility. Now, it is time to turn the page."

On the one hand: "Because of the drawdown in Iraq, we are now able to apply the resources necessary to go on offense [in Afghanistan]."

On the other hand: "As we wind down the war in Iraq, we must tackle those challenges at home [jobs, deficits, energy independence, and education] with as much energy and grit and sense of common purpose as our men and women in uniform who have served abroad."

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On the one hand: "No challenge is more essential to our security than our fight against al-Qaida."

On the other hand: "Our most urgent task is to restore our economy and put the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs back to work. … [This] must be our central mission as a people and my central responsibility as president."

None of this is wrong. All the pieces of what he said are worth saying. But what was he saying overall? Which pieces did he mean to emphasize most? What made the message worth the high profile of a prime-time address to the nation? (His last speech from the Oval Office, dealing with the BP crisis, also fell a bit flat. Maybe he should accept that his strengths aren't served by the format.)

Clearly, everyone wants to turn the page on Iraq, and I suspect that no matter what eruptions take place there in the coming months, you'll have to do just that to read much about the place. Iraq is off the front burners of national policy, and it will be off the front pages of every American newspaper.

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.

Many of the "benchmarks" that President Bush set in January 2007, as indicators of Iraqi progress toward political stability, have also remained unfulfilled. The Iraqi factions have not yet agreed on a formula for sharing oil revenue, moderating de-Baathification, writing a new election law, disbanding militias, or making good on minority quotas in regional elections.

The idea behind these benchmarks was a good one; the problem was that President Bush never enforced them, never used America's leverage to offer rewards and penalties to Iraqi successes and failures. And now that U.S. troops are pulling out (again, at Iraq's insistence and by international law), our leverage is diminishing still further.

In the latest edition of the Brookings Institution's Iraq Index: Tracking Variables of Reconstruction & Security in Post-Saddam Iraq, dated Aug. 24, Michael O'Hanlon and Ian Livingston write:

The … impasse over the March 2010 parliamentary elections, especially the dispute over barring some 500 candidates (mostly Sunni) from running in that process, has not only jeopardized Iraq's future political progress, but partially reversed recent accomplishments … [and has resulted in] backsliding on several key matters.

The Iraqi "surge," which Bush ordered in 2007 (and which Obama is now trying to emulate in Afghanistan), reduced the violence in Iraq and did what its architect, Gen. David Petraeus, hoped it would do: create a relatively secure space in which Iraq's elites could settle their disputes through politics instead of civil war. The problem is that Iraq's elites haven't taken advantage of the space—haven't settled their disputes—and it's unclear whether they will manage the feat in the near future.

Much as the surge and—at least as important—the counterinsurgency strategy deserve credit for the creation of this secure space, there were other factors at play as well: the Sunnis' own rejection of foreign jihadists the ethnic cleansing of once-mixed districts; the erection of concrete barriers in the middle of large cities, such as Baghdad, to prevent hostile sects from mixing; and the fact that many Iraqis, including some of the most talented (technocrats, doctors, merchants, and so forth), have simply fled their homes—2.7 million to other towns in Iraq and another 2 million to other countries. (Fewer than 5 percent of them have returned.)

There are hopeful signs, too: a restoration of services, in some cases to prewar levels; a rise in national income; the proliferation of cell phones, satellites, and computers; and an improvement in the quantity, quality, and (judging from local polls) the trustworthiness of the Iraqi military.

Still, as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said earlier today in a blunter speech, to the American Legion:

I am not saying that all is, or necessarily will be, well in Iraq. … Sectarian tensions remain a fact of life. Al-Qaida in Iraq is beaten, but not gone. This is not a time for premature victory parades or self-congratulations, even as we reflect with pride on what our troops and their Iraqi partners have accomplished. We still have a job to do and responsibilities there.

Obama did make a similar point in tonight's speech, though more brightly. "Iraq has the opportunity to embrace a new destiny," he said, "even though many challenges remain."

What are these challenges, and what is this destiny? What is the job we still have to do, and what are our responsibilities there? These are the questions President Obama still has to answer.

Corrections, Sept. 1, 2010: This article originally left a word out of this quotation from the speech. (Return to the corrected sentence.) It also originally stated, incorrectly, that the Aug. 31 deadline was also part of the SOFA. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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