Shadow Government

Obama's overambitious Iraq speech

President Obama's Oval Office address last night reminded me of an exchange I had last fall with a senior White House staff member at a policy conference. It was in the midst of the prolonged Afghan strategy review, and a very full domestic agenda, especially the push for the health care bill, and I was trying to get a sense of the president's state of mind and leadership priorities. I asked this staff member "In your observation, does President Obama consider himself a 'wartime president'?" The staff member responded somewhat defensively by describing how much the president cares for the military and is committed to the troops' welfare. But it was telling, I thought, that this staffer's answer avoided the actual question.

To be clear, there is no doubt that this White House is fully aware that it leads a nation at war, and that Obama feels deeply the manifest responsibilities of being commander-in-chief. Yet as Peter Baker's excellent New York Times article showed, and as last night's speech only further demonstrated, this is also a White House ambivalent about the term "wartime presidency" because it is ambivalent about just how much of a defining priority the wars should be. Especially in the midst of ongoing economic travails at home and an ambitious domestic policy agenda.

In this context, the president's speech was a worthy-enough effort, with a few high points. But taken in the whole, it tried to do too much and thus accomplished too little. It tried to celebrate the end of the war in Iraq while promising an ongoing (though vaguely defined) U.S. commitment; it tried to turn the nation's focus to the Afghanistan crucible while reiterating next year's force drawdown; it tried to cast the conflict against al Qaeda as the most urgent national security threat while failing to explain the strategic context for why Afghanistan and Iraq matter in that conflict (let alone Yemen or Somalia or other emerging hotspots); it tried to argue that the economic situation at home is the highest overall priority while being a speech about national security commitments overseas.

This last point is another illustration of the potential downsides of too tightly connecting domestic economic strength with international security (as the Obama National Security Strategy does). At one level this is a truism, of course, and has a coherent internal logic -- a strong economy at home enables strength aboard. But in the messy world of policymaking and hard trade-offs, overemphasizing this connection can lead to prioritizing expensive domestic programs (some of questionable utility) at the expense of national security commitments. See, for example, this quote from the Baker article on the White House's past deliberations on Afghanistan:

One adviser at the time said Mr. Obama calculated that an open-ended commitment would undermine the rest of his agenda. "Our Afghan policy was focused as much as anything on domestic politics," the adviser said. "He would not risk losing the moderate to centrist Democrats in the middle of health insurance reform and he viewed that legislation as the make-or-break legislation for his administration."

As with the crammed-in domestic policy section at the end of last night's speech, in Mike Gerson's words, "the president indicated that events in Iraq and Afghanistan were a distraction from his real agenda."

Even as the main audience for last night's speech, the American public, might have come away somewhat confused over the White House's priorities, it also sent an uncertain message to other important audiences in the CENTCOM region. These include the fractious and stalemated Iraqi government facing an unsure security environment; an Iranian regime watching for signs of American vulnerability; other Arab states worried about the U.S. posture especially in light of Iran's nuclear ambitions; or Pakistan and India whose questions about America's longer-term commitment in Afghanistan leads them to their own hedging strategies.

This is not to say that the president's speech was a failure; it was not. As Peter Feaver points out below, President Obama provided some needed answers and notes of grace. But for the answers it provided, it also raised more questions.


Shadow Government

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 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.