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Muted Response to Iraq Troop Pullback from War-Weary Nation

An Iraqi soldier gestures at a checkpoint in central Baghdad, Iraq, June 30, 2009. (Khalid Mohammed/Associated Press)

Updated 3:02 p.m.
By Dan Balz
The celebrations in Iraq marking the pullback of U.S. combat forces from Baghdad and other cities stand in stark contrast to the reaction in the United States. Here the transfer of power has been met almost with public indifference, overshadowed by everything from Michael Jackson's death to the fate of President Obama's domestic agenda.

A year ago, in the heat of the presidential campaign, the issue of whether U.S. forces should stay or go produced pointed debate and disagreement between Obama and John McCain. Now, the transfer of authority for protecting the cities from U.S. to Iraqi forces has been greeted with near-universal acceptance -- if also with some trepidation over what may happen next.

Obama marked the moment with brief remarks at the White House Tuesday afternoon, saying that the Iraqi people were "rightly treating this day as a cause for celebration," while noting that Iraqi leaders have many political issues to resolve. He praised U.S. forces for all they have done there.

The president also took note of the recent attacks and killings in Iraq. "There will be difficult days ahead," he said. "We know the violence in Iraq will continue." But he said he remained confident that the forces behind the bombings will fail. He concluded by saying, "There is more work to be done, but we've made important progress."

The pullback from the cities is not, technically, a withdrawal. The United States still has roughly 130,000 troops in Iraq and will for many months. The real draw-down will not begin in earnest until after the national elections in January 2010. But symbolically, Tuesday's handoff marks the beginning of a new and conclusive phase more than six years after U.S. forces invaded.

Public opinion long ago showed that a majority of Americans had concluded that the invasion ordered by President Bush was a mistake. Bush's troop surge, which he initiated in early 2007 in the face of much opposition, has been judged successful in contributing to a reduction in violence. But the Bush administration's management of the war in the years between the invasion and the surge have been widely judged a failure.

Debate may continue to rage over the war and the roles Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld played in what became the most politically divisive conflict since Vietnam. Critics remain unforgiving of what that trio did. Defenders believe Bush yet may be partially vindicated for seeing the conflict through. But the debate is no longer at the center of American politics. The nation grew weary of Iraq.

As a political issue, Iraq has faded into the background, despite the sizable troop presence that remains there. The war's potency as a flashpoint in the political debate diminished rapidly in 2008 as the economy went into a tailspin. McCain made little headway in trying to discredit Obama as unready to be commander in chief and his resistance to setting a timetable for withdrawal generated no traction for his candidacy.

Obama's ordered troop withdrawal has stirred little public debate. In part that's because the Iraqis are as anxious for the United States to leave as many Americans are to see the end of the American commitment. Under Obama's plan, combat forces will be gone by the end of August 2010. The remainder of U.S. forces, perhaps as many as 50,000, will leave Iraq by the end of 2011 under an agreement with the Iraqi government.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki signaled his desire to establish a timetable for the departure of U.S. forces last summer. That hastened the ultimate agreement between the two countries. Maliki's statements in recent days, in which he has claimed victory in ending the "occupation" of his country, underscored the mutuality of interest in drastically reducing the U.S. footprint in Iraq, if clearly aimed at Iraqi domestic consumption.

The fact that Tuesday's deadline is passing with so little public comment does not negate the fact that it represents the first big test for Obama's policy. In the days leading up to Tuesday's deadline, there have been a series of bombings and attacks, leaving more than 250 people dead. On Tuesday, a car bomb in Kirkuk killed at least two dozen people. On Monday, four American soldiers were killed in combat. Iraq is not fully secure.

Obama administration officials insist that the spike in violence was expected as the handoff took place and insurgents attempt to exploit the transition. Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, has publicly expressed his confidence that Iraqi forces can keep their cities secure. Other military leaders have done the same in private to the White House. If that's not the case, there may be questions about what kind of country Americans are preparing to leave behind. Obama could find himself under pressure to adjust the withdrawal timetable.

The president needs a quiet transition in Iraq, given the fullness of his foreign policy agenda. He and his advisers are continuing to wrestle with whether and how to adapt their Iran strategy in the wake of the post-election demonstrations there. Encouraging opponents of the Ahmadinejad while trying to engage the Iranian leadership over its nuclear ambitions is more complicated now than it was a few weeks ago.

North Korea remains a dangerous problem, if more straightforward than Iran in a response. Afghanistan and Pakistan continue to consume the administration's energies, as does the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Obama can only hope that the Iraqi security forces are strong enough to meet their new obligations.

Obama's approval ratings on Iraq are among the highest of any issue he is dealing with. The decision to withdraw, on whatever timetable, the sharp reduction in American casualties and the general war weariness after six years of involvement there have combined to create a political calm over the issue that so convulsed the country.

Unless there is a spectacular reversal there, what happens in Iraq may play out largely outside the consciousness of the American public, despite the fact that so many troops remain stationed there. Who would have thought that was possible not so very long ago?

By Web Politics Editor  |  June 30, 2009; 1:45 PM ET
Categories:  B_Blog , Dan Balz's Take  
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Next: Obama Hails Pullback in Iraq, Warns of More Violence


I very strongly approve of Mr. Obama's decision to not make any changes to the Iraq policy he inherited.

Why mess with success? Obama's a smart guy, he made the right decision.

Posted by: ZZim


Yes, it's fortunate that Bush adopted Obama's Iraq policy wholesale before he left office. That way, conservative boobs get to think that they were right all along, and consequently complain less.

Like you said: he's a smart guy.

Posted by: nodebris | July 1, 2009 12:22 AM | Report abuse

Bush did this, Obama does that....
Fact is, both are quite suckful.

Posted by: Billw3


When some people don't get their way, they sulk off into a protective little bubble of cynicism, where all things are equal and nothing matters.

It's a lot like sucking your thumb under your blanket when mamma scolds you.

Posted by: nodebris | July 1, 2009 12:18 AM | Report abuse

sauerkraut said:
"In five years or so and after more blood shed the Iraqis' will probably be ruled by Saddam II."

Sadaam I should have been left alone in the first place. Those yokels understand only a foot on their head.


Posted by: Billw3 | June 30, 2009 11:39 PM | Report abuse

Dan Balz said:
"Defenders believe Bush yet may be partially vindicated for seeing the conflict through."

"Not even a burglar could have said that better."
- Mark Twain

Posted by: JohnQuimby | June 30, 2009 7:50 PM | Report abuse

Obama's policies are right. Let's just get out of that failed country as soon as possible. We've done much more damage than good, thanks to the previous administration.

Posted by: dudh | June 30, 2009 7:18 PM | Report abuse

I'm sick of Iraq and the Iraqis, but withdrawal from the cities is a test - to see if Iraq can handle itself. Things go to hell, they may go back in, rather than see Iran take control, or to defuse full civil war.

As for the Lefts Overpowering Urgency of Now!!! to "Get our CHILDREN out!!" - give me a break. Casualties are light, The Left doesn't actually give a hoot for the soldiers they call "children". And the 130,000 still in Iraq are about the only concentration of Americans left with no fear of job loss or loss of health care. And Iraq has been less dangerous to injury or loss of life than living in 20 American urban centers since last June...

Posted by: ChrisFord1 | June 30, 2009 6:21 PM | Report abuse

I seem to recall the Bush administration was unable to negotiate an extension of the agreement that gave the Iraqis' approval to keep our troops there another year with an United Nations mandate. The timing of the withdrawl was done on Bush's watch (probably in consultation with Obama). Anyone with more particulars?

Giving credit or blame either one to Obama if this turns out to be a premature (by what measure?) withdrawl seems misplaced to me.

I happen to agree with those who think staying this long just made the fuse to the explosion longer. In five years or so and after more blood shed the Iraqis' will probably be ruled by Saddam II.

Posted by: sauerkraut | June 30, 2009 6:08 PM | Report abuse

for those of us who opposed military involvement in Iraq from the get go the turnover is a hollow victory. Yes, it should reduce the number of American casualties but it will not reduce the sectarian violence and the number of Iraqis killed as the religious and tribal factions struggle for power.

Our invasion and overthrow of Saddam destabalized the country. Whatever our objective was in invading a middle eastern nation and imposing our will on its people we have not achieved any strategic long range advantage. In fact, we may have, depending upon how the Shiah, Sunni and Kurds resolve their differences have ignited a decades long civil war. We shall see.

As far as the remaining American troops, whatever the number, are concerned Obama should get them out as quickly as possible. They will, in the main, be restrained in large compounds which make great targets for missiles and artillery and will, in all likelihood be forced to operate under rules of engagement which will limit their ability to defend themselves. MIght as well paint giant bulls eyes on them.

In truth we have only stepped back; now it is time to truly withdraw and allow the Iraqis to determine their own fate and future. That will surely call for a lot of blood and treasure; it should not be ours; we have already given enough.

Posted by: bobfbell | June 30, 2009 5:51 PM | Report abuse

Our soldiers are NOT out of the cities. About 10 percent of those 130,000 troops remain in Baghdad. Trainers? Advisers? Hah!

Posted by: Kathy8 | June 30, 2009 5:25 PM | Report abuse

What transfer of power? Our troops are still in Iraq

But this is still progress despite the Cheney/neocon fiasco.

And looking back, I can't believe Addington wanted to take apart the Constitution over this...

Real justice, an important goodwill gesture toward Iraq and the ME, would best be exemplified by the US if the American government were to take the neocons to court for war crimes -- I mean, it's only Cheney and a few ex-generals...

The excuse is it would harm efforts in Afghanistan, letting the world know what was done -- but down the road, it would help.

Iraq must see justice for the illegal invasion, I'll call it right here, they will rightfully carry a grudge forever if they don't, and that in turn will hurt the US in the ME and elsewhere.

Posted by: thegreatpotatospamof2003 | June 30, 2009 5:21 PM | Report abuse

Muted response from war weary nation? perhaps. But more likely most in America, probably even some of those in the decimated Republican Party, are so sick and tired of what Bush, Cheney, Addington, Yoo, Tenet, Ashcroft, Gonzalez, Libby, Rice, Colin Powell, Rumsfeld, Delay, Abramhoff, Boehner, Duke Cunningham, McConnell, Paulson, Roger Ailes, Limbaugh, Hannity, Fred Barnes, Billy Kristol, Wolfowitz, John Bolton, congressional Republicans, congressional Democratic Vichy French and many many others at the beck and call of the foregoing have done to take apart this country, divide it and instill hatred so much we don't have the stomach to think about how many people we have imprisoned, collateral damaged, killed, tortured, murdered and maimed elsewhere or even the countries other than our own that we ruined. It's every man for himself in the aftermath.

All because we stood around, hands in our pockets going to the mall, while we let psychopaths and sociopaths take over all three branches of the government in our country.

The fact that Obama and his DOJ are letting all of the foregoing evildoers absolutely get away with it mutes our feelings even further.

Posted by: Patriot3 | June 30, 2009 5:19 PM | Report abuse

I thought this was pretty interesting: "Obama's approval ratings on Iraq are among the highest of any issue he is dealing with."

I agree.

I very strongly approve of Mr. Obama's decision to not make any changes to the Iraq policy he inherited.

Why mess with success? Obama's a smart guy, he made the right decision.

Posted by: ZZim | June 30, 2009 5:15 PM | Report abuse

Bush did this, Obama does that....
Fact is, both are quite suckful.


Posted by: Billw3 | June 30, 2009 4:54 PM | Report abuse


Then, Rumsfeld let our troops stand idly by, watching as looters destroyed the water, sewer, and electric utility systems.

Thankfully President Obama is getting us out, and the Iraqis can fight it out amongst themselves between the fundamentalist wackos on the right and the murderous self-serving wackos who want to keep stealing money from the Iraqi people.

Posted by: onestring | June 30, 2009 4:44 PM | Report abuse

it was and is an unjust and a war of choice a lot of people have died for bushs war of choice a war of lies.

Posted by: donaldtucker | June 30, 2009 4:25 PM | Report abuse

what is it with you boneheads -- who gives a rat's patoot who ordered what? Our troops are STILL THERE. They are NOT HOME. There is nothing here to celebrate. We've pulled our arms back back to see if our pet iraqi prime minister, widdle nouri al maliki, can stand on his own. If he can't, you can bet our guys will be right back in it.

Quit arguing over stuff that doesn't matter. Big picture: Nothing has changed.

Posted by: summicron1 | June 30, 2009 4:22 PM | Report abuse

If the U.S. is ultimately leaving Iraq, why is the military building ‘permanent’ bases?

This isn't a pullback, it's propaganda, so spare us the muted response theory. People have gotten used to filtering out your propaganda after all these years, and apparently the media doesn't know it yet.

Posted by: khoreia | June 30, 2009 4:22 PM | Report abuse

"Obama's ordered troop withdrawl"????

Actually...uhhh...the Bush administration negotiated this withdrawl in concert with the Iraqi gov't long before Obama was elected. One of the big sticking points during negotations was immunity for US solders. Does that ring any bells? jog your memory? stimulate any neurons?

Oy Vey.

Posted by: sw11231 | June 30, 2009 4:02 PM | Report abuse

It was Bush who signed it, but it was virtually identical to what Obama championed during the campaign. Bush and his evil cronies kept saying "no timelines" and then signed Obama's proposed timeline. It was the first sign that everyone knows Obama was right (as usual) from the start.

Posted by: bflorhodes | June 30, 2009 3:54 PM | Report abuse

What transfer of power? Our troops are still in Iraq. They could march back to the cities tomorrow if our puppet were in danger of being overthrown, and you know they would.

bring them home, then I'll celebrate.

Posted by: summicron1 | June 30, 2009 3:47 PM | Report abuse

Well it's President Bush's plan so you'd expect the media to NOT hype it.

Posted by: Hawaiian_Gecko | June 30, 2009 3:33 PM | Report abuse

Obama's ordered troop withdrawal? I thought Bush signed that agreement with Iraq to get everyone out of the cities? But who really cares, we need all 130,00 men and women home yesterday.

Posted by: obrier2 | June 30, 2009 3:17 PM | Report abuse

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