In his August 31 Oval Office speech, Barack Obama marked the withdrawal of most US combat forces from Iraq, justly noting the fulfillment of a key pledge of his campaign for the presidency. In sober, understated rhetorical style, the president wisely avoided repeating anything like George W. Bush’s infamous “mission accomplished” braggadocio. And in keeping with the traditions of presidential politics, Obama downplayed his disagreements with the previous occupant of the Oval Office. But in so doing, the president all but ignored the catastrophic devastation wrought by Bush’s unprovoked war of aggression. And by celebrating his own “surge” of US forces in Afghanistan, Obama undermined his acknowledgment, in the same speech, that the country’s “most urgent task” is to restore an economy crippled by the worst economic downturn in seventy years.
The fact is that the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, built on false claims about the threat of weapons of mass destruction, was one of the worst foreign policy disasters in decades. At least 100,000 Iraqis have died, and many thousands more may perish if, as seems likely, 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 severely traumatized. By invading 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, indirectly aided the cause of extremist Islam, 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 social fabric so badly that it will take at least two generations to repair.
Americans need to remember the disastrous consequences of this debacle. But Obama, saying it is time to put disagreements over Iraq behind us, blithely declared, “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.”
Almost as distressing was Obama’s halfhearted 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 2007 resulted in a great success. But the surge prolonged the war by three more bloody, combat-filled years. Nor did the surge calm the crisis. The decline in violence, to the extent that there was one, came for two intertwined reasons: first, because Sunni tribal leaders banded together to fight Al Qaeda and other extremists; second, because Iran made a strategic decision to rein in its Shiite militia allies. But none of the issues that brought about civil war in Iraq have been resolved. The divisions are so deep, in fact, that political leaders have not been able to form a government six months after elections. The centrifugal tendencies of Iraqi politics may pull the country apart again, hurtling it back into civil war as US forces continue to draw down. That will create great pressure on Obama to slow or reverse the withdrawal.
Given the stagnant economy, his low approval ratings and dismal Democratic prospects this fall, Obama probably hoped the speech would improve his and his party’s prospects, given the polling that shows most Americans have for some time been sick of the Iraq occupation. But this speech is unlikely to alter the trajectory of the 2010 campaign. One problem is that nothing has really ended. Fifty thousand US troops—and even more US-paid mercenaries—will continue to occupy Iraq. Another is that the US combat mission in Afghanistan—after almost nine years of fruitless effort—is expanding. Indeed, despite Obama’s wise recognition that “open-ended wars” are not in the US interest, and his reiteration of the pledge to “begin a transition to Afghan responsibility” next July, Obama gave little confidence that the drawdown there would be speedy.
Obama correctly noted that “our nation’s strength and influence abroad must be firmly anchored in our prosperity at home,” and that “we have spent over a trillion dollars at war, often financed by borrowing from overseas. This, in turn, has shortchanged investments in our own people and contributed to record deficits.” But without an end to wars of occupation and a renewed commitment to a people’s recovery at home, this country will remain mortgaged to the terrible physical and economic costs of Iraq—and Afghanistan.