- By Tom Mahnken
As a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, I was gratified to hear President Obama’s tribute to the courage of America’s service members, including the Navy SEALs with whom I served in 2003. Over the course of the conflict, American forces have adapted and performed admirably under extremely difficult conditions. As James Russell writes in the latest issue of The Journal of Strategic Studies, American units structured and trained for conventional military operations shifted successfully to wage successfully a very different type of war.
And yet, one could not help to see in the president’s words and mannerisms, a man who was distracted, whose heart wasn’t in it. In a speech nominally devoted to Iraq, he couldn’t help but talk about the U.S. economy.
Obama’s speech begged comparison to his predecessor — indeed, his words invited such a comparison. And it is by comparison that he comes up short. Whereas Bush exhibited great courage in going against his own military to support the Iraqi surge and sell it to his own party and the American people, Obama has yet to put comparable effort into selling his own Afghan surge. The Oval Office speech was a missed opportunity to do just that.
In addition, in tone and substance, Obama’s speech failed to prepare the American people for what may be to come in Iraq. Although last night Obama formally declared an end to combat operations, nearly 50,000 American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines remain in Iraq, training and assisting the Iraqi armed forces. It is inevitable that in coming weeks and months these men and women will be attacked by insurgents who want nothing more than to cripple the Iraqi government and humiliate the United States, and is inevitable that more Americans will die or suffer wounds in Iraq. The president did nothing to explain this situation to the public.
Just as it was misleading for President Bush to speak in triumphant terms in May 2003, it was premature for President Obama to give the American people the impression that the Iraq War is over. It may be, to quote Churchill, "the end of the beginning," but we have hardly reached the end.