Shadow Government

What can Obama say about Iraq?

President Obama’s planned "big speech" on Iraq this week poses real challenges for the president. He wants to tout the fact that the military met his  September deadline of reducing the number of troops below an arbitrary 50,000 threshold — a milestone that many, including myself, doubted they would meet on schedule. But he needs ...

Getty Images
Getty Images

President Obama’s planned "big speech" on Iraq this week poses real challenges for the president. He wants to tout the fact that the military met his  September deadline of reducing the number of troops below an arbitrary 50,000 threshold — a milestone that many, including myself, doubted they would meet on schedule. But he needs to do so in a way that does not make some already thorny Iraq problems worse than they are.   

There are lots of things speechwriters and advisors wrestle with when confronted with a task like this. Here are four that I think are especially important.

The first is tempering a boasting frame/optic that wants to declare victory with a candor that still acknowledges the challenges ahead. Bush’s advisors memorably failed to get the balance right when President Bush gave the address that became known as the "Mission Accomplished speech." The remarks were delivered in front of a banner declaring "Mission Accomplished" aboard an aircraft carrier that was returning home after, well, after accomplishing its mission. Everyone remembers the vivid image of former jet-pilot Bush landing aboard the carrier and striding confidently on the tarmac. No one remembers the actual content of the speech he gave.  

The speech itself was congratulatory to the military for what they had already achieved in Iraq, but pitched responsibly. The speech clearly stated that the Iraq project was not finished. Bush did not say "mission accomplished." Bush said, truthfully, that the phase of the war involving "major combat operations" — what the military calls  Phase III operations — was over and that a new but still challenging phase (Phase IV operations, post-conflict stabilization) remained. While he manifestly did not anticipate how poorly the Phase IV operations would go, he did acknowledge "We have difficult work to do in Iraq." If the president had given the speech in the Oval Office, it would barely register in the public consciousness today. What seared it into the public memory and turned it into a favored attack line was the gimmick of delivering it aboard the aircraft carrier — and, of course, the image literally "framed" with the words "Mission Accomplished."

Obama’s handlers will not be so foolish as to allow exactly the same unfortunate photographic image to frame his Iraq speech, but they have already allowed other gimmicks that come close to the same thing. They have declared an artificial end to the combat mission, relabeled the combat troops there as "non-combat" advisory units, and changed the name of the military mission. This is pure gimmickry without any real grounding in military reality, unlike Bush’s announcement about the shift from Phase III to Phase IV. I suppose an ardent booster might try to claim that Obama is refining military science to create a new Phase V "post-post-conflict stability operations." Most experts see this as mere spin, and mere spin is a very dangerous foundation for mobilizing ongoing public support for a military mission.

Critics claimed Bush’s speech declaring the end of major combat operations was tantamount to spiking the ball on the 10 yard line (or even further from the goal). Because of this, neither the American public, nor the military, nor the Bush administration were prepared for the tough and costly work that remained. Will President Obama prepare us and his own team for the tough and costly work that remains in Iraq?

The second would be identifying a responsible mission for the next phase of the Iraq project. President Obama has allowed the mission in Iraq to be defined as "ending U.S. Involvement," rather than "achieving some sort of reasonable political outcome in Iraq." This is a potentially grave mistake and this speech represents his best opportunity to reset the mission statement. The administration is clearly conflicted on this point, since Vice President Biden has been rather fulsome in claiming all sorts of successes in Iraq beyond the narrow goal of abandoning Iraq to its own fate. Yet the Obama team has not settled on a definition of success anywhere near as precise as the Bush administration mantra of a "democratic Iraq that can govern itself, defend itself, and is an ally in the war on terror" (and that mantra was itself arguably imprecise). And by stressing that Iraq is "free to chart its own course," the administration appears to pretend (or worse, to believe) that the United States is completely indifferent to that course and that our national security will not be profoundly affected by what transpires in Iraq in the coming years.

Obama’s imprecision serves a political purpose. It creates a penumbra of ambiguity so vast as to encompass the hopes both of would-be supporters who want to see the United States leave behind a representative, self-defending, self-governing, Iraqi ally and of would-be supporters who believe Iraq is doomed and are content to see the United States admonished and chastened for its "folly." Bush supporters can point to the fact that Obama has thus far followed, for the most part, the Bush script on Iraq, and the fact that Biden is besting Cheney’s boasts about Iraq, and infer that Obama really is committed to seeing the Iraq project through to a responsible conclusion. Bush haters can point to the gimmicks, the artificial timelines, and the President’s obvious reluctance to talk about Iraq, and infer that Obama, like them, does not believe the United States has any valid purpose or stake in Iraq from here on out.

Obama can only keep both groups on board if Iraq progresses irreversibly towards a successful conclusion. If there are hiccups, people will demand greater clarity on the mission from the President. Now would be a good time to provide it.

The third: Talking honestly about what has and has not worked in Iraq. This is an especially difficult assignment for Obama because the things that have worked in Iraq thus far are largely not of his doing — chiefly the surge and the strategic horizon outlined in the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement. And the thing that has not worked in Iraq is entirely of Obama’s doing: rigid adherence to the artificial September 2010 deadline.  

To be sure, the artificial deadline "worked" in the narrowest sense of U.S. troop withdrawals hitting the mark. But the Obama team sold this rigid timeline as the best way to achieve a more important political goal: incentivizing the Iraqis to make further political compromises yielding further political progress. During the campaign, Obama’s Iraq advisors claimed that we did not see faster and more sustained political progress in Iraq because the Bush administration coddled Iraqi leaders and, in effect, fostered a co-dependency that allowed Iraqi dysfunctions to persist. Better, they argued, to administer the tough love of leaving on a fixed schedule regardless of the political conditions on the ground. This would concentrate Iraqi minds and get them to make the painful compromises they were resisting.

It was an interesting academic theory advanced by reasonable people. It even had some Bushian echoes — to insiders, it sounded a lot like Secretary Rumsfeld’s position. But most insiders recognized that threatening to leave regardless of what was happening on the ground in Baghdad produced the exact opposite result, fostering the very sectarian hedging we were trying to forestall, whereas reassuring Iraqis that we had their back encouraged them to make the tough compromises.

We now have seen 18 months of the Obama theory in action and the results, thus far, are not pro
mising. The Iraqi political stalemate is at least as bad as it was in Spring 2006 (albeit at lower levels of violence, thanks to the surge — and speaking of thanks, wouldn’t this be another great opportunity for President Obama to show some class with a gracious gesture acknowledging his predecessor’s courage on the surge?). There is no evidence that Obama’s gambit has fostered greater political cooperation among Iraqi political elites. To be sure, the blame should also be laid at the feet of other factors: weak leadership in Embassy Baghdad; neglect of the Iraq issue at the top levels of the Obama administration; and above all, the dysfunctions of the Iraqi political leadership. But as tests of academic theory go, this is a pretty dispositive rejection of the Obama hypothesis.

The fourth and final component: A candid, reality-based speech would acknowledge this fact and identify implementation changes Obama and his team will take to adjust accordingly. A faith-based approach would ignore the problem or, worse, pretend that the gambit has been a successful innovation.

Reaching the toughest audience: the Americans who are bearing the human costs of the Iraq mission. Every presidential speech has multiple audiences and the same words may resonate very differently in different ears. President Obama will have his work cut out for him trying to speak both to Americans and to the rest of the world, especially the Iraqis, who will be listening closely for indications of what American policy will be going forward — and hedging accordingly.

But for this speech, there are two very important audiences who will pay especially close heed to what Obama says. The first includes all of the Americans who have born the human costs of this war thus far — those who have lost loved ones, those who have suffered life-changing wounds, and those who have endured repeated tours under the most arduous conditions. They have one simple question for the president: Do you believe our sacrifice was worth it, that we bought something of value even if at a terrible price?  

Each member of this audience has already answered this question to his or her own satisfaction. But they will be listening to hear President Obama’s answer, and if it differs from theirs it will be a problem for both. Most, but by no means all of the people in this group believe that their sacrifices can still yield something of lasting value. They can hold this view even if they also believe that the original invasion was a mistake, so President Obama can reach this audience without having to revise his original opposition to the war. But he will have to identify something tangible that was or can still be accomplished, and that has to be more than simply abandoning Iraq to chart its own course.  

Yes, this group will welcome what Obama has said and done about expanding veterans’ benefits. But it goes beyond pandering and strays very close to insult to pretend that the only thing this group wants to hear is that they have won more generous survivors’ benefits or more lavish medical care. Most believe they were fighting for something a bit larger than that. Can Obama connect with them and with that larger purpose?

Even more challenging is the second group: those who will bear the human costs of the Iraq operation in the coming months and years. President Obama is asking U.S. military personnel and their families to continue to risk grave sacrifices in Iraq. To what end? Are they only dying so as to end the war? If there are no more "combat units" in Iraq, why are Americans still getting killed and wounded there?  During the worst days of the Iraq conflict, a common trope of the critics was to count the dead and wounded since Bush "declared mission accomplished." Obama will face the same haunting toll of sacrifice since he "declared the end of the war."

President Obama is widely considered to be a gifted orator. Those gifts will be sorely tested in this speech. I hope, for his sake and for the sake of the country he leads, that he will pass this test.  

To my ears at least, he did not do well in the preliminary quiz, this week’s radio address, which focused on Iraq. He repeated the gimmicks, fudged on the mission going forward, had nothing to say about the challenges that lay before us, pretended no national security interests were at stake in Iraq, and came dangerously close to reducing current and former military personnel to a government benefits enterprise. Only a stray phrase noting in passing that the troops fought "for the defense of our freedom and security" hinted at the important matters left unaddressed. Perhaps he will address them in the big speech.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University.  He is the director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and of the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy.

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