Obama speech on Iraq, and a foreign policy in need of progress

This week, Obama addresses the nation on Iraq and Afghanistan and restarts direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians. His challenge is to show enough progress to inspire support on these long-term commitments, from the American public and the players themselves.

This is a momentous week for President Obama and his foreign policy. On Aug. 31, his televised address to the nation marks the official end of the US combat mission in Iraq, with remaining troops used mostly to help train Iraqi security forces.

The next day, Mr. Obama restarts the moribund Mideast peace process that will include direct negotiations between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Washington.

Yes, a momentous week – in a long and patient effort in both the war on terrorism and peace in the Middle East.

Patience is not America’s middle name. The Great Recession slew 8 million jobs that haven't been restored overnight, neither has New Orleans been rebuilt in the five short years since hurricane Katrina.

In war, the public sizes up the cost of blood and treasure, and its judgment does not always match a president’s. An August poll by Associated Press-GfK shows that nearly 6 in 10 Americans oppose the Afghanistan war and only 38 percent support the expanded effort there.

Mr. Obama himself is sensitive to not getting militarily bogged down overseas, promising to begin withdrawal from Afghanistan next summer and emphasizing in his Saturday radio address that Iraq is now “free to chart its own course.”

The United States may be down to fewer than 50,000 troops in Iraq (from more than 140,000 when Obama took office), but the job of nation building is far from over, over there.

A new government has yet to be formed as political leaders wrangle over the results of parliamentary elections last March. Basic services are still woefully lacking. And Al Qaeda in Iraq still draws breath. It claims responsibility for more than two dozen bombings last week that killed more than 50 people.

Obama won’t be able to talk about Iraq without also weaving in Afghanistan, where many US troops have been redeployed and where US military leaders are attempting to reapply the “surge” strategy used in Iraq. That, too, requires patience, to see if this strategy will work.

The “long war” on terrorism is living up to its label, nine years after the 9/11 attacks. As the US and its allies apply pressure in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Al Qaeda-linked terrorist operations are springing up elsewhere – in Yemen, at the tip of the Saudi Peninsula, and across the Gulf of Aden in Somalia, on the edge of the Horn of Africa. Somalia’s jihadist Al Shabab group has launched a final push to topple that country’s weak, UN-backed government, and is coming perilously close to succeeding.

The vastness and complexity of the Islamic terrorist challenge becomes more apparent with each passing year. It’s never just about one country or one issue. Afghan Taliban find refuge in Pakistan, whose attitude is affected by Islamabad’s rivalry with India. A Nigerian student in England is given terrorist training in Yemen and tries to set off explosives in a Detroit-bound jet on Christmas Day. Much of the current worry is about Muslims in America resorting to terrorism.

It’s a slow slog, this attempt to blunt the Islamic terrorist threat and bring peace to the Middle East.

Progress is being made. The violence in Iraq is nowhere near what it was, and the country has held multiple fair elections. Last week, the final group of troops left for Afghanistan to bring the surge to its peak.

Meanwhile, the US has painstakingly worked to build international pressure on Iran (nuclear negotiations with Tehran could resume soon). And at least Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have agreed to talk face to face.

The tricky job for Obama from here on out is showing enough progress with these issues, especially the war on terrorism, to inspire support from the American public – and in the Mideast peace talks, from the players themselves.

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