Obama’s Iraq speech: another missed opportunity

Obama’s Iraq speech: another missed opportunity

President Obama’s speech on Iraq was a disappointment. Not a surprise, but a disappointment.

It was disappointing because it was yet another missed opportunity. He could have shown real statesmanship by acknowledging he was wrong about the surge. He could have reached across the aisle and credited Republicans who backed the policy he vigorously opposed and tried to thwart, a policy that has made it possible (but by no means certain) to hope for a responsible end to the Iraq war. He could have have told the truth about his Iraq strategy, that what he has pursued thus far has not been what he was arguing for in the campaign — that would have involved the departure of all U.S. troops by mid 2008 — but rather he has followed, in a more or less desultory fashion, a script written in the status of forces agreement negotiated by President Bush and Prime Minister Maliki.

Instead of giving such a speech, Obama gave a campaign address trying to claim credit for anything that is going well in Iraq and trying to avoid blame for anything that is going poorly. That may be shrewd campaign politics, but it is not the statesmanship the occasion warranted. The commander-in-chief missed an opportunity, and I worry that it will come back to haunt us.

Given how perilous his political position is, it should not surprise that Team Obama chose to play politics with the moment. The latest USA Today poll has Obama down to 41 percent presidential approval, very dangerous waters indeed for a first-term president heading into the mid-term elections.

Yet for precisely this reason, Obama needs all the support he can get. He needs as sure a footing for all of his war policies as he can build. The surest foundation is one based on honesty and candor and that speaks to the people most committed to seeing the wars through to a successful conclusion — even if they happen to be in the opposite party.

The truth is that Obama is running out of pages in the Bush playbook on Iraq and so increasingly it will fall to Obama to forge his own Iraq policy. Once the playbook is entirely his, he will bear full responsibility for the consequences. The only real change he made to the Iraq playbook he inherited was to signal to the Iraqi leaders that he was, in Charles Krauthammer’s words, "washing his hands of Iraq." Where President Bush signaled a commitment to succeed regardless of the political cost, President Obama has signaled, perhaps unintentionally, a commitment to abandon Iraq regardless of the national security costs.

It is a commitment I don’t think he can really stick to unless the Bush surge really has produced irreversible progress in Iraq — something that no Bush alum would ever claim. If Iraq spirals into chaos, Obama will encounter the very same national interest calculation Bush encountered: What happens in Iraq matters greatly for U.S. national security, even more than what happens in Afghanistan (this is why Bush prioritized Iraq over Afghanistan in 2006-2008 when both were in trouble).

Adverse developments in Iraq will be (and will look to be) increasingly a function of the Obama Team taking their eye off of the ball and rushing to declare mission accomplished. Yes, in such a scenario the Iraqis should bear most of the blame, but the part that is due to U.S. action or inaction will be Obama’s responsibility. And it will matter. Iraq is at the center of a region that every president since Jimmy Carter has identified as vital to our national security. Iraq is next door to, and the playground for mischief from, the most thorny national security challenge the United States faces: a nuclear-weapons-seeking Iranian regime. These inconvenient facts mean that if the Iraqi situation demands more focused and costly U.S. attention, it will likely get it. At that point, what sort of domestic coalition will be available for President Obama’s Iraq policy?

Of course, what matters is less what he says about Iraq and more what he and the Iraq hands in his administration actually do. The lack of strategic focus from the White House has made their job harder, but it has not necessarily doomed the Iraq team’s efforts irrevocably. We can hope that they will be able to wield our rapidly decreasing leverage with rapidly increasing skill. Hope is not the surest foundation for a national security strategy, but it may be our best bet at this point.