How did Obama do?
How did Obama do in his Iraq speech on those Four Essential Items I was tracking? Better than I feared, but not as well as I hoped. Gimmickry vs. Candor? He did not say "mission accomplished" but he did say mission completed and responsibility met (specifically: "The Americans who have served in Iraq completed every ...
Gimmickry vs. Candor? He did not say "mission accomplished" but he did say mission completed and responsibility met (specifically: "The Americans who have served in Iraq completed every mission they were given" and "we have met our responsibility"). The emphasis is all on what has been done and not on what still needs to be done. If what remains to be done is light and easy, the speech is strong enough to sustain it. But the speech did not prepare Americans for any hard and dangerous tasks to come in Iraq.
The gestures towards reality — "Of course, violence will not end with our combat mission" — felt like nothing more than gestures. And the breezy confidence — "But ultimately, these terrorists will fail to achieve their goals. Iraqis are a proud people. They have rejected sectarian war, and they have no interest in endless destruction. They understand that, in the end, only Iraqis can resolve their differences and police their streets" — seemed disconnected from the real challenges still confronting the Iraqi people, and therefore the United States.
Defining the mission going forward? The way forward seemed dotted with hopes and aspirations — a vague commitment to "support Iraq as it strengthens its government, resolves political disputes, resettles those displaced by war, and builds ties with the region and the world" — rather than with hard-headed strategies for achieving realistic goals. He also doubled down on the promise that all U.S. troops will be out of Iraq by the end of the year, leaving no flexibility for responding to the expected Iraqi request for a post-2011 American presence.
Honesty about what worked and what hasn’t? Without saying it directly, the entire speech was an acknowledgment that the surge had worked. In that sense, it was implicitly honest. But Obama avoided saying it, and indeed avoided most of the expected explicit discussion of his own record on Iraq. He reminded the audience that he had opposed the war initially, but left unmentioned that he had opposed the surge on which all that he had accomplished depended. More importantly, he did not discuss at all the failure of the "timetable as leverage" tactic — his primary contribution to Iraq strategy and the centerpiece of his Afghanistan strategy.
He did mention President Bush in a fairly positive light and I am willing to believe that his handlers thought they offered a gracious gesture. Certainly his call to "turn the page" on Iraq debates had a statesmanlike ring to it, even if on the very next page he leveled a campaign-theme attack line about money spent in Iraq not being available to be spent at home. Yet on balance, I am willing to credit this as his most gracious Iraq speech ever.
Speaking to the toughest audiences, those who lost loved ones? His peroration was moving and well delivered. He improved on the radio address by spending more time talking about military honor and less time talking about military compensation. But he also spent all of his time talking to and about the troops that had left Iraq rather than the troops that remained. I think they and their families would have appreciated a bit more explanation of why it is worth running the risks they must run, and bearing the burden they continue to carry.
Perhaps this will be the last speech he gives on Iraq in 18 months. If Iraq steadily improves, he may not need to say much more. If Iraqis consistently stand up, Americans can consistently stand down. If so, then this will be remembered as his best Iraq speech. But if the gains thus far in Iraq suffer serious setbacks and if the American military are obliged to do more than ferry equipment out of theater, this speech may be remembered as an ill-starred spiking of a ball that is very much still in play.