President Obama addressed the nation today, announcing that U.S. combat operations had come to an end in Iraq. While acknowledging the sacrifices of the service members who have fought for over seven years (with over 4,400 killed and 30,000 wounded), the President summarized the progress made since the 2003 invasion, and highlighted the successful hand off of responsibility for security to Iraqi security forces. In 2008, the US had over 180,000 troops in Iraq. Today, that number is down to just under 50,000. He further reiterated his intention to remove all U.S. forces by the end of 2011.
In preparation for this announcement, yesterday Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Baghdad to preside over the Change of Command and Change of Mission ceremony that signaled the change of roles for the US and Iraqi militaries. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki addressed the Iraqi people, hailing this as the final step toward reclaiming national sovereignty.
The President needs to be very careful on this now. As a presidential candidate, Obama was clear that he did not support the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Withdrawing US troops was a primary campaign promise. And, as he slowly moves to fulfill that promise, he recognizes the damage that too rapid of a pull out could do to US security.
The President now finds himself in an ironic situation. Despite the fierce opposition to the Iraq war from liberal Democrats over the past seven and a half years, President Obama now finds himself responsible for implementing a larger piece of President Bush’s National Security Strategy. Although the primary reason given for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a perceived threat of weapons of mass destruction from Saddam Hussein, another goal was establishing stable, model democracies in both Iraq and Afghanistan that would serve as examples to the Middle East as a whole, but more specifically to Iran (the other Middle Eastern spoke of the Axis of Evil).
Today, President Obama is more or less stuck with this strategy, since allowing Iraq to fall into chaos would almost certainly have negative repercussions on American interests in the region. And although the irony is increased by his previous opposition as a senator to the “surge” that many credit with helping bring Iraq back from the brink of sectarian chaos, President Obama may find himself in the position to cement the successful conclusion of the strategy set in motion by his predecessor. By encouraging Iraq to pursue a healthy democracy free of sectarianism and corruption (both of which are still daunting challenges), the democratic beacon that President Bush hoped to establish in the Middle East may yet become a reality and help to stabilize the region in the long run.
Obama Speech Transcript, CNN
Vice President Joe Biden in Iraq ,White House Blog 30 Aug, 2010
The National Security Strategy 2006, Section III Strengthen Alliances to Defeat Global Terrorism and Work to Prevent Attacks Against Us and Our Friends
Al-Maliki marks U.S. end to Iraq combat mission in national address, Jomana Karadsheh CNN.com 31 Aug 2010