Iraq Watch

By Dan Froomkin
12:54 PM ET, 03/ 2/2009

Your fellow White House Watchers are weighing in on my Friday item, in which I wondered if, in his recent Camp Lejeune speech, President Obama's essential endorsement of former president George W. Bush's possibly unattainable goals for Iraq means he now gets the blame if things fall apart after we leave.

The big headline, of course, was that Obama announced a dramatic reduction of U.S. troops by the end of August 2010 and a total pullout by the end of 2011. But he also described as an achievable goal "an Iraq that is sovereign, stable, and self-reliant."

In his interview with Jim Lehrer of PBS's Online Newshour on Friday, Obama was careful not to endorse the original mission.

Lehrer: "On Iraq specifically, you drew applause and shouts from some of the Marines when you went through what was accomplished in Iraq, particular Saddam Hussein, you went through a couple of other things. In general, should the Iraq mission now be seen as 'successful'?"

Obama: "Well, I think what we can say unequivocally is that our military succeeded in every mission that was given to them. They consistently performed above and beyond expectations under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. I don't think that we can rightly say that the strategy cooked up by our civilian leadership, with respect to either going in in the first place or how the war was managed, was a success. But I think that we can say without equivocation that our military was successful, and if we get it right over the next few months and years, that there is the strong possibility that we can leave Iraq as a stable, peaceful partner in the region."

And Obama expressed less lofty -- and arguably more realistic -- goals for Afghanistan than he did for Iraq:

Lehrer: "As you know, Mr. President, there's a traditional language for these kinds of conflicts, and its victory, or its loss, you win a war or you lose a war. Is there a victory definition for Afghanistan now or is that part of your thinking at this moment?"

Obama: "I think there are achievable goals in Afghanistan, and the achievable goal is to make sure it's not a safe haven for terrorists, to make sure that the Afghan people are able to determine their own fate. One of the things that I think we have to communicate in Afghanistan is that we have no interest or aspiration to be there over the long term. There's a long history, as you know, in Afghanistan of rebuffing what is seen as an occupying force, and we have to be mindful of that history as we think about our strategy.

"Our goal in the region is to keep the American people safe. And I think that the more we can accomplish that through diplomacy, and the more we can accomplish that by partnering with actors in the region, rather than simply applying U.S. military forces, the better off we're going to be."

Juan Cole, writing for Salon, is much less concerned than I about Obama's expressed goals in Iraq. And he may be right.

"The new president forcefully rejected Bushian mission creep," Cole notes. "Obama admitted, 'We cannot rid Iraq of all who oppose America or sympathize with our adversaries. We cannot police Iraq's streets until they are completely safe, nor stay until Iraq's union is perfected.' In other words, he is prepared to depart Iraq even if it remains somewhat divided, even if a drumbeat of subdued violence continues in its cities, and even if anti-Americanism retains a certain purchase on the population....

"Some Republicans claimed that Obama's plan vindicated their Iraq policies, which is sort of like claiming that Captain Sullenberger's water landing in the Hudson vindicated the geese that knocked out the jet engines."

Foreign Policy blogger Marc Lynch loved Obama's speech: "It laid out a powerful rationale for the new policy, sent a very clear signal to Iraqis about American intentions, placed American policy firmly within the context of the Status of Forces Agreement negotiated with the Iraqi government, and embedded the policy effectively into its wider regional context. I know that some on the left are worried about the 50,000 figure for the residual force and about the timeline, but I think those concerns are overblown. The plan Obama laid out today is entirely consistent with his campaign promises and -- more important -- is the right strategy for today's Iraq....

"'What we will not do is let the pursuit of the perfect stand in the way of achievable goals.' This, combined with the emphasis on Iraqi responsibility, demonstrates a very healthy realism about the enterprise which has too often been lacking from American rhetoric.

In a Washington Post survey of foreign policy experts, anti-war Boston University Professor Andrew J. Bacevich writes: "In effect, the president is orienting the Pentagon's attention back to Central Asia, the front where the war began in 2001. Yet in doing so, he implicitly recommits the United States to what has become an open-ended military endeavor.

"Lost in the shuffling of troops is any clear understanding of that endeavor's strategic rationale. Iraq alone has cost the United States a trillion dollars or more. The putative success of the 'surge' notwithstanding, we have achieved exceedingly modest and tenuous gains. To imagine that simply trying harder in Afghanistan and Pakistan will produce a happier outcome is surely a fantasy."

Neocon former Bush administration hawk Douglas J. Feith writes: "His speech effectively repudiated the extreme antiwar rhetoric of recent years. There was no mention of Iraq as a disaster, a fraud or even a blunder. He presumably still thinks the war should not have been fought, but Obama chose not to make this point, accentuating the positive instead....

"This Iraq speech was cautious. It neither represents nor promises ultimate victory in Iraq. But it does flatly contradict those war critics who damned the U.S. effort as an irredeemable failure. It represents the defeat of the defeatists."

Former Post defense correspondent Thomas E. Ricks tells Benjamin Sarlin of the Daily Beast: "I think the speech had a lot of Bush-like optimism in it. I think he's walking in the failed footsteps of his predecessor when he says we'll get down to 30,000 troops quickly. Bush's original plan was to get to 30,000 by September 2003, so what you have is Obama saying he can do that too by August 2010. The other thing that struck me was that he was talking about transitioning to Iraqi Security Forces, what Bush called 'standing down as they stand up.' I found it overly optimistic and a bit worrisome because of that....

"Basically the surge failed. It was intended to improve security and lead to a breathing space where political breakthroughs could occur. None occurred. None of the basic questions facing Iraq have been addressed: sharing oil revenue; the basic power relationship between Sunni, Shia, and Kurd; the shape of the country—strong central government or loose federation; what's the state of Iran or the status of Kirkuk? We are keeping the lid on things now, we are the glue holding things together."

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