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Time for Iraq
President Obama's strategy aims at success. Is that a goal congressional Democrats can support?

Saturday, February 28, 2009

THE IRAQ strategy that President Obama announced yesterday was broadly faithful to his campaign promises, but it contained some important and praiseworthy adjustments. The president lengthened his 16-month timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops to 19 months, thus adopting the middle of the three options the Pentagon studied. He set a ceiling of 50,000 troops for the "residual" force he has always said would remain -- a figure that quickly prompted sniping from his party's left wing. He gave up his formula of withdrawing forces at the rate of a brigade a month, which will allow U.S. commanders to maintain a large force in the country through Iraq's crucial parliamentary elections at the end of this year.

Most important, Mr. Obama spoke of Iraq not as a fiasco to be abandoned but as a "great nation" whose "future . . . is inseparable from the future of the broader Middle East." He said his administration aimed for "a new era of American leadership and engagement" in the region and "will work to promote an Iraqi government that is just, representative and accountable, and that provides neither support nor safe haven to terrorists." That is almost exactly how the Bush administration defined "victory" in Iraq. Thanks to the military and political successes of Mr. Bush's last two years, there is reason for hope that Mr. Obama's strategy can achieve that aim.

The president's speech was not without hedges and contradictions. He said there would be limits to what the United States would do to stabilize Iraq, and he put Iraqis on notice that they must "seize" the opportunity they have been offered. Perhaps with his antiwar base in mind, he pronounced "as plainly as I can: By August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end." In the next breath, he promised to "proceed carefully" and "consult closely" with military commanders and the Iraqi government, and he said "there will surely be difficult periods and tactical adjustments." Does that mean Mr. Obama is open to altering his plan if al-Qaeda or Iranian-backed militias rebound as U.S. troop levels decline? Some of the congressional leaders he briefed, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) seemed to think so; Mr. McCain called Mr. Obama's plan "reasonable."

Unfortunately for Mr. Obama, the initial response of some congressional Democrats was anything but reasonable. A number objected to the size of the residual force: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) declared that 15,000 or 20,000 would be more appropriate. Neither she nor other objectors explained why fewer troops were needed or expressed any interest in nurturing what Mr. Obama described as the "renewed cause for hope in Iraq." That is a measure of Mr. Obama's statesmanship: Though he opposed the war, his strategy recognizes what has been achieved in Iraq, even at a terrible cost, and aims at preserving it. His party would do well to follow his lead.

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