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.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan

Fred Kaplan is the author of The Insurgents and the Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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.