Obama's Iraq speech: Can he address opposite views of the war?

Obama's Iraq speech Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET will be a balancing act. The majority of Americans say the Iraq war was a mistake, but others say this isn't the time to end the US combat role.

Jason Reed/Reuters
President Obama on Tuesday thanks US Army troops for their service at Fort Bliss, Texas. The visit precedes Mr. Obama's Iraq speech from the Oval Office about combat troop withdrawals in Iraq.

President Obama faces the daunting – some say impossible – task of marking in a politically cohesive and unifying manner the official end of US combat operations in Iraq. He addresses the nation on the Iraq war from the Oval Office Tuesday night.

Mr. Obama, who opposed the war before taking office, must explain to the majority of Americans who now say the Iraq war was a mistake what the US military mission there has accomplished. He’s also likely to discuss why something resembling the last US combat stages in Iraq is now justified in Afghanistan.

At the same time, Obama's Iraq speech must explain to the more hawkish side of his audience why this is the right moment to end the US combat role in Iraq. And he’ll be paying tribute to the honor and sacrifice of the hundreds of thousands of US soldiers who served – and the more than 4,400 who died – in Iraq. Earlier on Tuesday, he was to meet with returning troops at Fort Bliss, Texas.

“Obama is in a terribly delicate position because he has to make his statement about Iraq in a way that does not contradict his previous stance that the war was a mistake, while at the same time balancing that against honoring the sacrifices of the men and women who served there,” says Wayne White, a former State Department intelligence officer specializing in Iraq. “It’s extremely difficult, and frankly I don’t see how it can work.”

A lot of explaining to do

This is not the first time Obama will speak on his Iraq policy, and the president, some observers say, could still surprise critics by drawing on his recognized oratory skills to deliver an address that encapsulates the seven-year Iraq experience for many Americans.

In May, Obama spoke about Iraq in his commencement address at West Point, and last week, Vice President Joe Biden discussed Iraq at the convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Indianapolis. But those were niche audiences, some political analysts note, where both leaders could unsurprisingly speak of the “success” of the US military effort in Iraq.

But addressing the nation in a prime-time televised address will be different.

Recent polls show that more than 50 percent of Americans consider the Iraq war to have been a mistake. But at the same time, Mr. White and other Iraq analysts point out, Obama has been criticized from within his own party for not leaving Iraq in bigger numbers sooner. And a particularly aggressive opposition is snapping at his heels for drawing down now to 50,000 troops – essentially trainers and eventually backup for the Iraqi military.

“Obama has to explain to his left why he’s taking so long and why he’s not drawing down more, and to his right why he’s taking out so many and right now,” says Judith Yaphe, a former Iraq analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency and now a professor at the National Defense University in Washington. “How do you balance that?”

Forgetting Iraq?

But Ms. Yaphe, like some other Iraq experts, say that questions about Obama’s constituencies and political impact “are really the wrong questions” when the focus should be on the risks in a politically unstable Iraq – and how the US transition in Iraq will affect those risks.

“We’re moving ahead according to our timetable and what works for us, and that’s what worries me,” she says. “I wouldn’t be so concerned if the Iraqis could get themselves together and form a government, but they can’t.”

Iraq’s national election in March was hailed as a triumph of democracy, in particular within the Obama administration. But since then, the country’s political factions have failed to form a new government based on the results, and if anything seem further apart than just a few weeks ago.

Obama must also be mindful that his address will carry weight in Iraq, says White, now an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington. Iraqis will be listening for clues about America’s future in their country.

“This is also a delicate moment for Iraqis,” he says. “He has to do this [speech] in a way that lets the Iraqis know that the US is not abandoning them. Anything else could have quite negative consequences.”

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