Obama touts withdrawal in Iraq war. Does he sound like Bush?

Starting with his Iraq war address Monday, President Obama will tout foreign policy progress ahead of midterm elections. Republicans counter that he has resorted to Bush administration policies.

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Barack Obama stands with National Commander of Disabled American Veterans Roberto Barrera, second from left, and others, before he spoke about Iraq and Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 2, at the Disabled American Veterans national convention in Atlanta.

President Obama shifted his focus from domestic issues to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan Monday, marking a month that will see the end of the US combat role in Iraq.

Mr. Obama came into office promising a “responsible end” to the war in Iraq, “and that is exactly what we are doing – as promised and on schedule,” he said in a speech to the Disabled American Veterans in Atlanta.

American troop levels in Iraq will drop from about 80,000 to 50,000 by the end of August in accordance with an agreement between the US and Iraqi governments. The remaining troops will carry out support functions for the Iraqi military and US diplomats. The US has agreed to remove all troops from the country by the end of 2011.

IN PICTURES: Fighting continues in Afghanistan

The drawdown of American forces in Iraq comes more than seven years after the beginning of a war that at its height included hundreds of thousands of soldiers and more than 100 casualties a month.

As Iraq winds down, however, the president spoke of ramping up US forces and the US commitment to Afghanistan, where he said a “deteriorated” situation had revived prospects of the country once again becoming a “safe haven” for Al Qaeda to plan and train for its “murderous acts.” He reminded his audience that it was in Afghanistan where Al Qaeda had hatched the 9/11 attacks.

Obama said that such a regression was something he could not tolerate. But he insisted that the strategy he has adopted for Afghanistan will allow for meeting the goal he has set for beginning to withdraw combat troops there by a year from now.

Obama’s war themes – success in Iraq, progress in Afghanistan, and no safe havens for Al Qaeda – will resurface in the coming weeks as the president tries to establish an image of foreign-policy progress in the run-up to the midterm elections.

The focus on a successful drawdown and transition in Iraq was first tested in May, when Obama gave the commencement speech at West Point military academy.

“This is what success looks like,” the president told the graduating cadets, listing the criteria that he said allowed him to make such a statement: Departing US troops will leave behind a “democratic” and “sovereign” Iraq, but “no haven” for the kind of violent extremists who attacked America on 9/11.

Obama’s positive words about Iraq, both at West Point and Monday in Atlanta, were reminiscent of former President Bush’s talk of “mission accomplished” and implanting “democracy” in Iraq. Republican leaders are already suggesting the “Obama as Bush” response they are preparing for the president as he draws attention to the transition in Iraq.

On Sunday, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said on Fox News Sunday that he “commended the president” for “basically ignoring his own campaign rhetoric in 2008 and adopting the program of the Bush administration to wind down the war.”

Obama is indeed carrying out an agreement reached by the Bush administration that laid out the timetable for withdrawal.

The 50,000 troops that will remain in Iraq will continue training programs with the Iraq military, and will support Iraqi security forces in counterterrorism operations – operations that in some instances are likely to expose troops to the combat risks of past years. Taking note of that, Obama said in his speech, “The hard truth is we have not seen the end of American sacrifice in Iraq.”

At the same time, that “American sacrifice” has shifted to some degree to Afghanistan, as suggested by rising casualty figures that made July the deadliest month for US forces in Afghanistan.

Seeking to blunt the rising protests over Afghanistan the president faces from his own liberal base, the White House noted in a fact sheet Monday the kinds of figures depicting over-all progress in the wars that Obama will be citing in the coming weeks.

The fact sheet notes, for example, that even with Obama’s addition of 30,000 troops in Afghanistan, the total number of uniformed Americans in the two countries will be down about 30,000 by the end of August from where it was when he took office.

IN PICTURES: Fighting continues in Afghanistan


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