Obama's Iraq: Pledge kept, not "Mission Accomplished"


  • World
  • Sunday, 29 Aug 2010

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Don't look for a "Mission Accomplished" moment when President Barack Obama makes a major address to the American public on Tuesday about the end of 7-1/2 years of U.S. combat in Iraq.

Obama risks a misstep that could haunt him in the future if he comes across as too triumphant, especially with 50,000 U.S. troops still in the country. But with the U.S. jobless rate at 9.5 percent and contentious congressional elections just two months away, Iraq is not on most Americans' minds.

"It's just kind of fallen off the radar somehow," said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and a public policy expert at Princeton University. "Obviously, most Americans are concerned more about the economy."

If they are paying attention to war, Americans are more likely focused on Obama's buildup in Afghanistan. Things are not going well there after almost nine years of fighting, so it could help Obama to talk about the prospect of an end in Iraq.

"It's useful politically because things aren't going great in Afghanistan," said defense and security expert Stephanie Sanok of the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington, who has worked at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

"I understand the need to head into September with good news on your side ... forgetting the fact that it was the Bush administration that negotiated that ending with the Iraqis."

Obama's Republican predecessor George W. Bush was ridiculed after he stood on an aircraft carrier decked with a "Mission Accomplished" banner in May 2003 to declare major combat over in Iraq, only to have fighting continue for years.

Tuesday's nationally televised speech will highlight what administration officials say is Obama's fulfillment of a campaign pledge to get out of Iraq but will steer clear of a declaration of victory or a clear end to the conflict.

"The idea of a kind of withdrawal, without full withdrawal right now, will also leave many Americans on the left, but also the center and right, a bit dubious about what the administration is claiming," Zelizer said.

"He has to be very, very, very careful," said Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow and security expert at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

STILL UNSTABLE

Iraq has a long way to go, given that its leaders cannot agree on a new coalition government six months after elections and it has seen a spate of coordinated violence like attacks on security forces that killed at least 62 people and wounded more than 250 across the country on Wednesday.

"I think in the next couple of months, you'll see continued attacks ... and I think you'll see both terrorist groups and insurgent groups trying to test the government taking credit for them," Sanok said.

If Iraq were to collapse into violence and Baghdad asked for help, U.S. willingness to return could be tested.

"U.S. military folks would be very willing to go back and help the Iraqis in any way they could," Sanok said. "That said, I think politically there is little to no appetite to, as some people would put it, sink more money into a venture if the Iraqis aren't willing to step back up."

Obama will thank the troops on Tuesday but has a more complicated message for many who voted for him in 2008 partly because of his promise to get out of Iraq and who he now hopes will back his fellow Democrats in the Nov. 2 elections for Congress and state governorships.

"The dominant issue for most voters in November will be the Obama administration's handling of the economy, jobs and government spending," said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta.

Many Americans, particularly on the left, are deeply skeptical about Afghanistan, the longest war in U.S. history.

"I don't think he's going to get a lot of credit ... because of the fact that for all the troops he's taken out of Iraq, he's added troops in Afghanistan," Korb said. "I think people did expect him to reduce the defense spending."

Administration officials say part of the speech will be about Afghanistan. Obama also promised while campaigning to refocus U.S. military resources on the country that harbored the al Qaeda militants behind the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.

"The president is going to use (the Iraq speech) as an opportunity to commemorate the men and women who fought so bravely there and talk directly with the American people about what our mission is in Afghanistan and what he's doing around the world to help make sure we are safe and secure here at home," deputy press secretary Bill Burton told reporters in Martha's Vineyard, where Obama was on holiday last week.

(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Patricia Wilson and John O'Callaghan)

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