Let's get the good news out of the way first, in President Obama's Iraq speech last night. Here it is: he said that the US combat role in Iraq has ended and that Iraqis have "responsibility for the security of their own country." He said that "all US troops will leave by the end of next year." And he promised, once again, that US troops will begin to leave Afghanistan, too, next July.
That's about it. Now the bad news.
Most distressingly, Obama treated the war in Iraq as if it were a minor, tactical disagreement, rather than a fundamental, black and white difference between two irreconcilable views. "I am mindful that the Iraq war has been a contentious issue at home," he said. "It is time to turn the page." To underline the point, he mentioned that he'd telephoned former President George W. Bush before delivering the speech, though he mercifully spared us details of that conversation. Needless to say, the unprovoked invasion of Iraq by the United States in 2003 was a clear-cut, criminal war of aggression, making it far more than a merely "contentious" issue. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died for no good reason, and many thousands more are likely to perish as Iraq's bitterly divided body politic settles its differences with guns and bombs over the next five or ten years. Millions of Iraqi children have been traumatized beyond repair. By going into Iraq, the United States alienated its friends, weakened its alliances, emboldened its adversaries, blackened its reputation, squandered a trillion dollars, suffered tens of thousands of dead and wounded, utterly failed to spread democracy and freedom in the region, vastly strengthened Iran's strategic position in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf and devastated a nation by shattering its economy, its state institutions and its very social fabric in a manner that will take at least two generations to repair. None of this seems to have occurred to President Obama, who wants to turn the bloody page.
Almost as distressing was Obama's half-hearted reference to Bush's vaunted surge. By now, in much of the mainstream media, it's become part of the catechism that the surge "worked," that the addition of 30,000 combat forces in January, 2007, resulted in a great success. (Obama, like many Democrats, liberals, and some realist-minded Republicans, opposed the surge.) Here are the facts: early in 2006, many Republicans knew that the war in Iraq was a disaster, and they wanted out, before the voters could express their disdain for Bush, Cheney and Co. at the polls in 2006 and 2008. The Iraq Study Group, chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Representative Lee Hamilton, was created to nail down an exit strategy, and they did, proposing a year-long timetable for withdrawing US forces. But the surge prolonged the war, which could have ended in late 2007 or early 2008, at the latest, by three more bloody, combat-filled years. Nor did the surge calm the crisis. The decline in violence, to the extent that it did occur, came for two intertwined reasons: first, because Sunni tribal leaders banded together to fight Al Qaeda and other extremists; and second, because Iran made a strategic decision to rein in allied Shiite militias, halt the supply of IEDs and other weapons to its allies on the Shiite side and convince Muqtada al-Sadr and other Shiite militant leaders to stand down, which they did.
The very agreement that Obama cited last night, which calls for the complete withdrawal of US forces by the end of 2011, was the result of a deal struck between the United States and Iraq long before Obama's election, and the only reason that the deal worked is because Iran, which opposed it at first, eventually acquiesced. Tehran convinced its many friends and allies in the ruling coalition under Prime Minister Maliki in 2008 to go along with the US-Iraq withdrawal accord in order to weaken American influence in Iraq, and in that they have succeeded. Tehran also brokered an uneasy ceasefire between Maliki and Sadr in 2007, and it has worked hard, though without complete success, to strengthen its ties to the various Shiite and Kurdish factions that dominate Iraqi politics. Because of its proximity, Iran will continue to exert a gravitational pull on Iraq, which no longer has an effective army to defend itself against its larger neighbor. The withdrawal of US combat forces from Iraq—although the 50,000 that remain aren't exactly unarmed—signals just another phase in the decline of American influence in Iraq.
What Obama failed to mention is that the next sixteen months will be a severe test of his sincerity about withdrawal.
First, the centrifugal tendency of Iraqi politics may pull that country apart again, hurtling it back into civil war even as US forces continue to draw down, and that will create great pressure on Obama at home to slow or reverse the withdrawal.
Second, Iran has many cards to play, and if US-Iran relations deteriorate further, despite the apparent resumption of Iran's dialogue with the world's great powers later this month, Iran can use its muscle in Iraq to make life hell for the United States.
And third, the neoconservatives and proponents of the war—those inconvenient advocates of the illegal invasion of Iraq that Obama refuses to battle politically—are revving up demands that the United States settle in for the long haul in Iraq. As indicated by Paul Wolfowitz's obscene op-ed in the New York Times on Tuesday, in which he compared Iraq to South Korea and suggested that tens of thousands of US forces remain in Iraq indefinitely, the neocons want Obama to justify their outrageous decision to go to war in Iraq by preserving and extending a US military role there for years to come. In Wolfowitz's analogy, Iran plays the part of North Korea (and "Red" China), and they'd like nothing more that to use the continuing turmoil in Iraq to justify a South Korea–style US presence.
Unfortunately, despite Obama's words in pledging to withdraw US forces from Iraq by the end of 2011, he will find himself under enormous pressure to renege on that promise. And there's precious little reason to believe that he won't cave in to that pressure, particularly if Iraq devolves into civil war sometime in 2011.