Obama's Iraq Problem

By Dan Froomkin
1:45 PM ET, 02/27/2009

Obama speaks about Iraq during a visit to Camp Lejeune, N.C., today. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

By President Obama's reckoning, we never should have gone into Iraq in the first place, but today -- even as he announced a timeline for the departure of American troops -- he more or less endorsed former president George W. Bush's possibly unattainable goals for the benighted country.

"This strategy is grounded in a clear and achievable goal shared by the Iraqi people and the American people: an Iraq that is sovereign, stable, and self-reliant," Obama said today at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. "To achieve that goal, we will work to promote an Iraqi government that is just, representative, and accountable, and that provides neither support nor safe-haven to terrorists. We will help Iraq build new ties of trade and commerce with the world. And we will forge a partnership with the people and government of Iraq that contributes to the peace and security of the region."

Obama's decision to remove all combat troops from Iraq in 18 months, while leaving as many as 50,000 troops there in non-combat roles until the end of 2011, will strike some observers as too fast and others as too slow. It's certainly a bit slower than what he said he would do on the campaign trail.

But I have to wonder: What happens when we leave? And who gets the blame if things fall apart?

Some experts I respect (Peter Galbraith, for instance) maintain that, although violence has dramatically declined in Iraq, there is still no real stability there -- and that at some point in the future, quite possibly when we pull out, the ethnic tensions that exploded into civil war after Saddam Hussein's overthrow will almost certainly explode again.

That's no argument for staying longer. If things are going to explode either way, we might as well leave sooner than later.

But if Obama has really adopted Bush's goal of leaving behind a secure Iraq, then the failure, should it happen, would be his. And Bush's years-long strategy of kicking the can down the road will have worked.

In his speech today, Obama forthrightly described many of the challenges: "Iraq is not yet secure, and there will be difficult days ahead. Violence will continue to be a part of life in Iraq. Too many fundamental political questions about Iraq’s future remain unresolved. Too many Iraqis are still displaced or destitute. Declining oil revenues will put an added strain on a government that has had difficulty delivering basic services. Not all of Iraq’s neighbors are contributing to its security. Some are working at times to undermine it. And even as Iraq’s government is on a surer footing, it is not yet a full partner – politically and economically – in the region, or with the international community."

He emphasized the "critical recognition that the long-term solution in Iraq must be political – not military....The long-term success of the Iraqi nation will depend upon decisions made by Iraq’s leaders and the fortitude of the Iraqi people. Iraq is a sovereign country with legitimate institutions; America cannot – and should not – take their place."

But then he repeated his intention to achieve that possibly impossible goal: "[A] strong political, diplomatic, and civilian effort on our part can advance progress and help lay a foundation for lasting peace and security."

With more on today's announcement, Anne E. Kornblut and William Branigin write for The Washington Post: "President Obama announced plans Friday to withdraw the bulk of U.S. forces from Iraq by Aug. 31, 2010, and to pull out all remaining troops by the end of 2011, ending the war in Iraq and launching 'a new era of American leadership and engagement in the Middle East.'"

Peter Baker writes in the New York Times about how, so far, Obama is getting heartier support for his plan from Republicans than Democrats. Surprise.

AFP reports: "President Barack Obama's Iraq withdrawal announcement Friday was likely to stoke a painful debate: With thousands of US dead, countless Iraqis killed, and nearly one trillion dollars spent, was the war worth it?"

And Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press that Obama called Bush to brief him on the plan, as as courtesy.

I wonder if Bush said thank you.

UPDATE: Will Iraq now be Obama's failure? Weigh in in my White House Watchers group discussion.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company