By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 24, 2010; 7:36 AM
Obama's return to Washington -- after 10 days in Martha's Vineyard and a quick stop in New Orleans to commemorate the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina -- will begin with an address to the nation marking the end of combat operations in Iraq (on Tuesday, the U.S. military announced that the number of U.S. troops in Iraq has fallen below 50,000 for the first time since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion).
Days later, Obama will preside over the start of a new round of Middle East peace talks in Washington.
Both events offer the president some political opportunities to help end a frustrating summer on a more positive note. But each is fraught with expectations that could prove difficult to meet in the long run, especially as the White House begins planning a reelection campaign next year.
And a week-long focus on foreign policy -- timing driven largely by events outside of the president's control -- could seem oddly out of step during an election season that has been dominated by concerns over the national economy.
The White House offered a preview of Obama's Iraq speech on Monday, with Vice President Biden's remarks to the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Biden's mission -- as Obama's will be next week -- was to carefully find a way for the White House to take credit for making good on the president's promise to bring the war to an end, while avoiding the false "mission accomplished" bravado that helped turn the public against former president George W. Bush.
"One month after his inauguration, at Camp Lejeune, President Obama laid out a plan for ending the war in Iraq responsibly, and we have followed it closely ever since," Biden said.
He quickly added: "And one more thing: Drawing down our troops does not mean we are disengaging from Iraq. In fact, quite the opposite is true. While our warriors that remain there are as capable as any in our armed services -- they know how to fight if they have to -- their mission has changed. They are there now to help the Iraqis help themselves."
White House officials hope the reality of large-scale disengagement will be enough to satisfy the antiwar wing of the Democratic Party, which provided early energy to Obama's presidential campaign.
White House officials are also mindful of the political dangers that a resurgence of violence in Iraq could mean. With 50,000 troops to remain in an advisory capacity beyond the Aug. 31 deadline, a declaration of victory could end up sounding hollow to voters if more U.S. fatalities occur. Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies warned about future violence in a recent column, saying that "The Iraq War is not over and it is not 'won.' In fact, it is at as critical a stage as at any time since 2003."
Biden acknowledged the difficulties Iraqis have had in forming a government, but expressed optimism that it will happen. "This process can sometimes be frustrating, and there will be ups and downs, but I am confident that the Iraqis will form a national unity government soon," Biden said.
Just as with Iraq, the Middle East peace process is full of potential and peril for the president.
Obama took office with sky-high expectations for a new era of international reconciliation, a hope stoked by the president's winning of the Nobel Peace Prize, an award based largely on his speechmaking around the globe.
Those hopes were dimmed considerably in the Middle East when the administration chose to focus on getting Israel to halt construction of settlements, a decision that was met with strong resistance in that country. Palestinians also pulled back from negotiations.
Now, the act of bringing the two sides together to take another year-long stab at finding peace could provide some momentum.
But as many American presidents have discovered, the momentum against peace is decades long and the history that animates both sides dates thousands of years.
The ongoing threat of violence as a means of blowing up peace efforts is also clearly present. In a briefing for reporters, counterterrorism adviser John Brennan said the administration is committed to making sure that extremists on both sides do not prevent the peace talks from succeeding.
"We are going forward with this with a strong sense that these talks can succeed," Brennan said. "There is a commitment now by the Israelis to participate in it. We're hoping that the Palestinians are going to agree shortly to participate as well. And so what we need to do is to make sure that all sides remain committed for these talks over the next year."
Next week, expect Obama to say the same thing. And then to wade cautiously into a process that carries political and diplomatic risks.