Obama speech on Iraq carries some pitfalls

By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 31, 2010

President Obama is promoting the decision to end the U.S. combat mission in Iraq on Tuesday as a fulfillment of his campaign promise to draw the war to a close. But some of the president's detractors are using the same moment to question the wisdom of doing so - noting that Iraq is still afflicted with violence and has yet to form a government.

Obama will mark the occasion by flying to Fort Bliss, Tex., to meet with veterans. He will also deliver a prime-time Oval Office speech - only his second since taking office. On Monday, the president visited Walter Reed Army Medical Center and awarded 11 Purple Hearts to combat veterans. Vice President Biden traveled to Iraq to amplify the message.

"Maybe he's entitled to the partial victory lap, but this is not the right moment for it," said analyst Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, who has been critical of both Democratic and Republican approaches to the war. "If I were him, I'd wait until we have an Iraqi government, and do it with the Iraqis together."

O'Hanlon said he was "confused about the planned Oval Office speech." It could raise unrealistic expectations among the public about the chances for calm in Iraq, he said. And the timing of the pullout of combat troops may be seen as having more to do with the president's political needs than with real signs of progress on the ground.

White House officials said the speech, scheduled to begin at 8 p.m. and last 15 to 20 minutes, would acknowledge this week's deadline as a "milestone" and pay tribute to the 1.5 million Americans who have served in Iraq since 2003. Obama will address shifting U.S. options now that the country is no longer technically at war in Iraq, including a greater emphasis on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The president will say that "it's time for Iraq to step up and take responsibility for security in the country," one senior administration official said.

Obama will call former president George W. Bush before the speech, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said. He did not say whether Obama will give his predecessor credit for the 2007 troop "surge" as Republicans have demanded.

House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, in an opinion piece last week, assailed Obama for taking credit for the drawdown. "While the administration continues seeking credit for 'ending the combat mission' in Iraq, it is important to remember that this transition was made possible by the very surge that President Obama and Vice President Biden opposed," Boehner wrote.

Obama's celebration of an arbitrary deadline - much like Bush's premature "Mission Accomplished" declaration in 2003 - could come back to haunt him if U.S. troops continue to die and the Iraqi government remains unformed.

"If the war is 'over,' what happens if a Black Hawk goes down next week, God forbid?" asked Paul Rieckhoff, a veterans advocate. While combat troops have departed, the tens of thousands of troops still in Iraq are expected to engage in defensive military action when necessary, and Special Forces troops will continue to conduct counterterrorism missions.

"It looks as if al-Qaeda in Iraq is targeting the Iraqi security forces rather than us, and in fact their statements have made it pretty clear that's their objective - trying to show that the Iraqi security forces can't provide the most basic services of government," said L. Paul Bremer, who was the U.S. government's civilian administrator in Iraq in 2003 and 2004. The Obama administration has acknowledged that "there will be some combat," he said.

Bremer believes the bigger threat may come in 2011, when Obama has promised to remove the approximately 50,000 troops who remain.

CONTINUED     1              >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company