The Obama White House has been fretting for weeks over how best to portray the official conclusion of the US combat presence in Iraq at the end of this month. If the speech by Vice President Joe Biden before a veterans organization Monday is an indication, it will be upbeat, muscular, and just shy of “mission accomplished.”
Telling the annual convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) in Indianapolis that “politics, not war, has broken out in Iraq,” Mr. Biden listed points that he said constitute success in the country the United States invaded in March 2003: Violence is way down, more than 650,000 Iraqi security forces are “leading the way to defend and protect their country,” Iraqi politicians are solving their deep and complex divisions through negotiations, and Al Qaeda in Iraq, though it “still remains dangerous,” has “failed” in its objective of destabilizing the country politically.
Also noting that a sizable American civilian presence will take over the lead of the US effort in Iraq, the vice president said, “Drawing down our troops in Iraq does not mean we are disengaging from Iraq. In fact, quite the opposite is true.”
President Obama is now expected to deliver a televised address on Iraq sometime after his planned Aug. 29 return to Washington from vacation in Martha’s Vineyard. The tone is unlikely to wander far from that set by Biden on Monday, although several factors – most significant, the continuing inability of the Iraqi political class to negotiate a new government more than five months after national elections – will dampen any urge to crow too much.
As much as he might like to, Mr. Obama is not likely to echo the triumphal tone that comedian Stephen Colbert will take when he airs two nights of “The Colbert Report” in early September focused on the troops returning from Iraq. The two episodes on Sept. 8 and 9 are to be titled “Been There: Won That.”
Yet some Iraq experts already see hints of a “war won!” approach from Obama that they say would be every bit as “irresponsible” as President Bush’s declaration of “mission accomplished” in May 2003.
“The Iraq War is not over and it is not ‘won,’ ” wrote Anthony Cordesman, an expert in US military affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in a commentary on Obama’s Aug. 18 statement that marked the departure of the last US combat brigade from Iraq. “In fact,” he continued, “it is at as critical a stage as at any time since 2003.”
Saying that “everything now depends on a successful transition to an effective and unified Iraqi government,” Mr. Cordesman added that a state capable of bringing security and stability to the “average Iraqi” is five to 10 years away. He seemed to advise Obama to stifle any urge to declare victory.
Biden, who was appointed by the president to oversee the implementation of his Iraq policy, told the VFW on Monday that he has personally pressed upon Iraq’s leaders the need to “match the courage of their citizens [who voted in March] by completing this process” of forming a government.
But he added, “I am absolutely confident that Iraq will form a national unity government that will be able to sustain the country.”
The White House had obviously not expected the Iraqis to take more than five months to form their government, other experts note. But, they say, the delay may serve as a cautionary experience as the administration plans for what it says will be the withdrawal of the remaining 50,000 US troops by the end of 2011.
Saying Iraq could still slip back into civil war, Ken Pollack, an Iraq expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, says, “The problem is [as the Iraqis negotiate their political divisions] we’re the referee, we’re the only referee, and we’re stepping back right now.”