Covering a seven-and-a-half-year war in less than 18 minutes, President Barack Obama gave an Oval Office speech Tuesday night, saying, "The American combat mission in Iraq has ended."
From the same desk where President George W. Bush launched the war in March 2003, Obama said, "It is time to turn the page." He recalled "a war to disarm a state [that] became a fight against an insurgency" and acknowledged that he disagreed with Bush about the war "from its outset." He said he had spoken with the former president today, and "no one could doubt President Bush's support for our troops, or his love of country and commitment to our security."
It was President Bush who actually launched the timeframe for withdrawal, negotiating a status of forces agreement with the Iraqi government in 2008 that was finalized on Nov. 17 of that year, two weeks after Obama was elected but before he took office. That agreement called for all U.S. combat forces to withdraw from "cities, villages, and localities" by June 30, 2009, and said "all U.S. forces must withdraw by Dec. 31, 2011." President Obama then amended the agreement to add the Aug. 31, 2010, deadline for withdrawal of combat forces-leaving in place 50,000 U.S. service members who will train and assist Iraqi security forces until their departure at the end of next year.
The end of the U.S. combat mission comes at a time when violence against U.S. forces has ebbed, but security within Iraq has not taken hold. Last year at this time, the U.S. casualty toll stood at 127; at the end of combat operations this year it stands at 46. But the number of Iraqi casualties is telling: This month alone, 270 Iraqi civilians have been killed along with about 85 Iraqi soldiers. Political instability also remains, as lead parties have been unable to form a coalition government since March elections ended in a disputed deadlock.
But Obama, in only his second Oval Office address since becoming president, spent little time in his speech to the nation on the challenges ahead in Iraq nor gave a detailed accounting of the war-avoiding any mention of the 2007-08 U.S. troop surge ordered by Bush and carried out by Obama's new commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus. The surge is largely credited with turning around the direction of the war and making withdrawal amid the current level of security possible. But at the time, Obama was a fierce critic of the surge, saying, "20,000 additional troops in Iraq is not going to solve the sectarian violence, in fact I think it will do the reverse."
Instead, tonight the president moved quickly-in less than 10 minutes-from discussing the end of U.S. involvement in Iraq to turning his audience's attention to Afghanistan. By next July, he said, "we will begin a transition to Afghan responsibility." He said the pace of troop reductions there "will be determined by conditions on the ground" but reiterated "open-ended war serves neither our interests nor the Afghan people's."
In a curious turn, considering the historic moment that the end of war in Iraq represents, the president then spent the remaining moments of his speech on the U.S. economy-in a carefully rehearsed delivery that conveyed the strain of a commander in chief fighting two wars abroad and economic recession at home in the midst of midterm elections that are unlikely to favor his party. "Our most urgent task now," the president said, "is to restore our economy.
To hear Mindy Belz discuss this topic on the Knowing the Truth radio program, click here.