Obama’s Unfinished Iraq Address

August 31st, 2010 at 11:04 pm David Frum | 22 Comments |

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Obama’s Iraq speech messages:

1) Attention liberals: I ended the Iraq war, as promised!

2) Attention conservatives: I did not cut and run.

3) Attention soldiers: More benefits for you.

4) Attention region: I’m staying the course in Afghanistan.

5) Attention swing voters: My priority is the economy.

Too many messages, too many audiences. Too many hostages to fortune. The president promises both the end of the combat mission – and a commitment to securing Iraq’s future. What happens if those commitments conflict? He promises that all troops will leave Iraq by the end of 2011. That pledge may depend on what the meaning of “troops” is.


Questions left behind:

Will liberals accept these results as anything like what they voted for in 2008?

Will Iraq’s reality cooperate with the president’s plans to draw down in that theater as he revs up in Afghanistan?

Can leaders motivate troops to fight a successful war in Afghanistan when the leaders themselves express little confidence in success?

Will Iran notice that the speech did not guarantee Iraq against aggression by Iraq’s neighbors?

Wasn’t that an awfully thin compliment to President Bush? Really, if that’s all you will say – better not to say anything.

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22 Comments so far ↓

  • SFTor1

    Hi David,

    some simple answers:

    There is nothing more to be done in Iraq. United States combat forces are not part of the solution. Period.

    The ambivalence and half-heartedness of the previous Administration requires some additional work in Afghanistan. But there too we are not part of the solution, so we need to create some breathing space for Afghans to put their own affairs in order, but on a time table. It’s the correct approach.

    Will liberals accept this as a campaign promise fulfilled? If they have any sense they will.

    If you think that Iran wants to inherit the mess that is Iraq think again. They will influence events in Iraq towards the end of having a stable an non-aggressive neighbor, even a friend if they can arrange it. They basically have such a friend in Al-Malaki. The Iran-Iraq War was Saddam’s baby.

    Can leaders motivate troops to fight a successful war in Afghanistan? We have a professional military.

    President Bush does not deserve any compliments, neither for the debacle in Iraq nor the half-war in Afghanistan. He accomplished nothing but to waste a trillion dollars. The President was generous.

  • rbottoms

    Moaning about thin compliment for the worst president in American History?

    This criminally stupid man skated town leaving two wars at the point of failure, a country on the brink of a second Depression and you’re fishing for a pat on the back??

  • Rabiner

    rbottoms:

    “Moaning about thin compliment for the worst president in American History? ”

    This comment gets thrown around quite a bit and it bothers me every time I see it: “worst president in American History”. No Bush was not the worst president in American History, although he certainly can make a claim for worst President since 1900. I’d have to say Buchanan was the worst by far.

    Regarding the thin compliment however: Bush deserves little if any compliment since we shouldn’t of gone to war in the first place. They presented reason after reason for going to war after the previous one didn’t gain traction with the public. They played upon the public’s fears with ‘nuclear bombs’ and trying to tie Al-Queda with Iraq.

    Did I think the speech would make David Frum happy? Not in the least bit and his commentary isn’t surprising. Did it make me happy? I’m lukewarm considering that being in Iraq to begin with was stupid and getting out is only a step up. It isn’t like we aren’t committed in Afghanistan now for however long now.

  • drdredel

    @Rabiner,

    I think the hyperbolic assertion that he was the worst is reasonable for two reasons

    1) we lived through his reign of incompetence and idiocy, so we know it first hand. It’s hard to assess with accuracy how someone who lived 150 years ago led the nation. We can definitely get a pretty good idea, but the trouble with history is that it’s based on someone’s interpretation of events, so, it can never be truly accurate.

    2) it’s a totally subjective statement. I’m sure that people who frequent this site will passionately argue (in spite of mountains of evidence to the contrary) that Clinton and/or Carter were worse presidents than Bush II. I think it can be said with a reasonable amount of certainty that no president did us as much damage (both short and long term) as did dubya, but of course, that’s not entirely fair since someone living in < 1900 couldn't do as much damage even if they really wanted to, simply by virtue of being impeded by technology.

  • Rabiner

    drdredel:

    I understand your position I just prefer not speaking in hyperbole since it takes the conversation to a point in which people are just yelling. Hyperbole serves no one well in arguments since they’re so over the top as to render what is said meaningless.

  • Derek

    Why would the Left be happy with even a thin compliment to a man they consider to be a war criminal?

  • bamboozer

    Oh you rascally NEOCON! The one that made me gag was “a thin complement to Bush”.

  • sinz54

    When America is at war, the job of a Commander-in-Chief is to rally public support for the war. In any democracy, it’s critical that the leadership is trusted by the people enough to support the leadership’s decisions on war.

    Obama’s speech failed to do that. Yes, he said that we were going to turn the page on Iraq and go forward in Afghanistan. But with polls showing the American people turning against the war in Afghanistan too, Obama needed to dwell much more on just why we are there and what the stakes are, as he sees them.

    Most importantly, the longer term. How does the war in Afghanistan fit into U.S. foreign policy? What is our longer-term strategy for fighting non-state terrorist groups like al-Qaeda? If al-Qaeda sets up training camps in Somalia or Sudan or some island in the Pacific, are we going to fight there too? How does this war against al-Qaeda ever end, with America safer?

    Besides that, the various pieces of the speech just didn’t fit together. It was clearly a speech designed by committee. Turning the page on Iraq leads us to–what? A bigger war in Afghanistan? Improving our country at home? How do we do both simultaneously?

    Obama should have given TWO speeches–one this time on foreign policy, and one a couple of weeks from now on the economy. Why Scotch-tape those two issues together into one speech?

  • DFL

    As a family man, I never watch these sorts of speeches. There are more pleasant things to do on a summer night. Yet if Bill Kristol and John Podhoretz liked the speech, it must have been rather bad, supportive of perpetual war for Wilsonian democracy throughout the globe. But President Obama did not mean it. His heart is not into wars in obscure bits of the globe. America will be out of Iraq at the end of 2011, Obama will be reelected in 2012, leading to America leaving Afghanistan sometime in 2014. Come home, America, you are too broke for mindless nation-building.

  • Bosco

    So it is possible to attract a range of responses to Mr. Frum’s point-ed response to our President’s speech, without the left-right talking-point/name-calling. What continues to lead me into the back-country of politics and the civilization of government is the possibility (certainty) that no one and no group has The Map for the future. Ah, the trade-offs, and then the tortured rationale. President Bush gave us what we felt in his words after 9/11. And he “stayed the course” with the surge, giving the invasion one last chance at “success”. In our present deeply partisan moment, I’m listening for solutions, not band-aids. I run into a lot of Democrats fishing here in the back-country, and a few right wing Republicans with plans for a combo hunting shack/church. Meanwhile, President Obama stays his professed course. There’s plenty of legitimate criticism to be leveled, and a case can be made occasionally for just saying “no”. How Bush managed a second term was pretty ugly, and this election will be no beauty contest. Could someone point me to a discussion of the relative merits of extending the tax cuts? It seems pretty clear to me, but then the change in my finances won’t be all that noticeable.

  • Oldskool

    “Will liberals accept these results as anything like what they voted for in 2008?”

    He’s done a lot of what he promised to do so liberals can only complain those things weren’t bold enough. And so some of the wind has been taken out of their sails and they won’t turn out this fall in the same numbers as ’08. But I think it’s safe to say 2012 will be a different story.

  • easton

    Will liberals accept these results as anything like what they voted for in 2008? I see no reason why they wouldn’t. Far leftists, on the other hand, are never satisfied.

    Will Iraq’s reality cooperate with the president’s plans to draw down in that theater as he revs up in Afghanistan? At some point you have to leave. Must we stay there forever to prevent Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds from killing each other?

    Can leaders motivate troops to fight a successful war in Afghanistan when the leaders themselves express little confidence in success? As SFTor1 pointed out, they are professionals, and nothing motivates someone more than getting your ass shot at. Just a few days something like 20 Taliban died trying to attack our base and they inflicted zero casualties.

    Will Iran notice that the speech did not guarantee Iraq against aggression by Iraq’s neighbors?
    Iran will not invade Iraq, they have zero reason to. They have their own proxies there fighting.

    Wasn’t that an awfully thin compliment to President Bush? Really, if that’s all you will say – better not to say anything.
    When the Axis of incompetence of Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld apologize for their horrendous criminal negligence for the first 4 years, then we can talk about what little belated competence Bush had later on (brought about by a severe repudiation at the polls)

  • balconesfault

    Will liberals accept these results as anything like what they voted for in 2008?

    Liberals weren’t the strawmen that neocons tried to paint them as – most liberals realized that there wasn’t going to be an instantaneous pull-out from Iraq, but there was going to be a committment to winding down our committment, rather than looking for excuses to heel-drag or even create new committments. Obama has made good on that.

    Will Iraq’s reality cooperate with the president’s plans to draw down in that theater as he revs up in Afghanistan?

    Cooperate? It’s not our country, is it? I mean, they had a very stable, terrorist-free country before we move in, we have to plan for them to be able to maintain their own security someday without sucking from America’s teat, don’t we?

    Can leaders motivate troops to fight a successful war in Afghanistan when the leaders themselves express little confidence in success?

    Troops aren’t paying attention to the day to day political hackery that takes place here in America.

    Go see Restrepo. http://movies.nytimes.com/2010/06/25/movies/25restrepo.html It’s circulating through theaters now. Then you will have an idea of what our soldiers are contending with day to day – and it’s not with the ridiculous pundit-fest that we obsess over here.

    Will Iran notice that the speech did not guarantee Iraq against aggression by Iraq’s neighbors?

    How far would you take that guarantee?

    Wasn’t that an awfully thin compliment to President Bush? Really, if that’s all you will say – better not to say anything.

    Had he not said anything, you’d be complaining here today about Obama’s egotism in not mentioning Bush. Come on, admit it.

  • Iraq in the Long Run - NYTimes.com

    [...] in the Long Run It was a strange speech that Obama gave last night, but then again it was a strange situation. Has there ever been an [...]

  • abk1985

    Well, I for one have no problem with calling Bush II the worst president in American history. Buchanan had a loaded deck to play with. Bush II started a fire all by hisself.

  • balconesfault

    Whether or not Bush was the worst President in American History – there’s a pretty solid consensus out there from both sides of the political aisle that the Iraq War was the biggest Foreign Policy Blunder in American History. Outside of dedicated neocons, is there anyone who doesn’t believe this to be true?

  • easton

    balconesfault, I dunno, Vietnam was a pretty big blunder, hell I think it was bigger since right now Vietnam is embracing Capitalism all on their own. Tens of thousands of Americans dead, untold millions of Vietnamese, millions of Cambodians as well.

  • sinz54

    balconesfault: Iraq War was the biggest Foreign Policy Blunder in American History. Outside of dedicated neocons, is there anyone who doesn’t believe this to be true?
    Which was worse, Vietnam War or Iraq War?
    That’s a tough call.

    In numbers of American casualties, Vietnam was far worse: 50,000 killed in Vietnam as compared with 4,000 in Iraq.

    In terms of American social stability, Vietnam was also worse. Riots tore the country apart, as young people resisted being drafted to go to Vietnam. That sort of thing didn’t happen with the Iraq War, since we had an all-volunteer army and any young people who didn’t want to fight didn’t have to.

    But in terms of how misbegotten the war was, Iraq was definitely worse. LBJ escalated the war in Vietnam because he didn’t want a U.S. ally to fall to a Communist insurgency on his watch. You can disagree with that decision, but at least you could make a case for it. Communist insurgencies were active in numerous countries.

    Whereas Bush told the American people that we had to invade Iraq to disarm Saddam’s arsenal of Weapons of Mass Destruction–weapons that turned out not to exist. Had we known that Saddam had no WMD, I’m sure that Congress would not have voted for a resolution of military action just to topple Saddam for its own sake.

  • balconesfault

    Think of it this way – our work in Vietnam was just a holding pattern. Had we not intervened, 1973 would have just happened around 1967 instead. Either way by 1996 or so multi-national companies would be building factories and then golf course resorts over there, although perhaps the resorts wouldn’t have the “nostalgia” trade from surviving US vets wanting to visit in their retirement years.

    Certainly in a “human toll” perspective Vietnam (and the resulting killing fields that occurred in Cambodia thanks to our destabilizing that regime as part of our fight with the Viet Cong) – but I was thinking about damage to the US. And I will even agree with Sinz to some extent that fight there did lay down another marker that we’d fight the expansion of Communism.

    But Iraq? The geopolitical aftermath of Iraq
    … to actually promote terrorism, by reinforcing the meme that the US just wanted to invade and occupy Muslim counties
    … to eliminate the strongest counterforce to Iranian dominance in the Middle Eastern Muslim world
    … to blow America’s moral high ground with an invasion of a country which hadn’t attacked us and wasn’t actively engaged in hostilities with one of our allies
    … to blow America’s moral high ground with Abu Ghraib
    … to take much of Iraq’s oil production offline for years, creating a supply gap that caused massive increases in the price of oil and thus massive transfers of wealth to Iran, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Russia
    … to create a cover for countries to claim a need to develop nuclear weaponry as their only real “deterrence” from US aggression
    … to create the case for “preemptive invasion”, something Russia has already cited as an equivalence when they invaded Chechnya
    … to severely damage America’s economy by bleeding out a trillion dollars over a few years, and creating another trillion in ongoing liabilities in VA benefits for wounded servicement and materiels replacements and payments to families of soldiers killed in action

    As a matter of foreign policy, Iraq was definitely worse than Vietnam.

  • armstp

    The only message I took away from Obama’s speech is that we have done what we promised to do and we are getting the fuck out.

  • easton

    Still disagree,

    … to actually promote Communism, by reinforcing the meme that the US just wanted to invade and occupy former colonial countries
    … to eliminate the one of the strongest counterforces to Chinese dominance in the Asia (and yes, China and Vietnam have long been enemies, even today they are arguing about the South China sea)
    … to blow America’s moral high ground with an invasion of a country which hadn’t attacked us and wasn’t actively engaged in hostilities with one of our allies
    … to blow America’s moral high ground with My Lai
    … to take much of Iraq’s oil production offline for years, creating a supply gap that caused massive increases in the price of oil and thus massive transfers of wealth to Iran, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Russia (eh, debatable, Iraq has been producing 2.5 million barrels of oil for years, under Hussein and now)
    … to create a cover for countries to claim a need to develop nuclear weaponry as their only real “deterrence” from US aggression (like they would not have done it, Pakistan did it because of India, India because of China, China because of the US and Russia)
    … to create the case for “preemptive invasion”, something Russia has already cited as an equivalence when they invaded Chechnya (Russia used any excuse, remember Hungary, Chechoslovakia, Afghanistan?)
    … to severely damage America’s economy by bleeding out a trillion dollars over a few years, and creating another trillion in ongoing liabilities in VA benefits for wounded servicement and materiels replacements and payments to families of soldiers killed in action
    The vietnam war created inflation and stagnation throughout the 70′s. Remember stagflation?

    Vietnam tore the country apart far worse than Iraq. It also cost America far more in terms of treasure and human lives. Don’t forget there were 500,000 troops there at its height in a country that had around half the present day population.

  • Candy83

    “Will liberals accept these results as anything like what they voted for in 2008?”

    I think, Mr. Frum, liberals have been lost by President Obama. In 2010. And it was probably deliberate. They’ll always be quasi-liberals – the self-identified progressives – who make plenty of noise, and justifiably so, but who keep coming back to the party after being rudely rolled. They, too, will urge other self-identified progressives to do the same. (Reality: they need to show the Democrats they’re willing to refrain voting for the party. That the left has elsewhere to go.)