This was supposed to be a victory speech. But President Obama had little to celebrate and it showed. Paraphrasing Churchill, this was an ambivalent speech with much to be ambivalent about. The president spoke of transition, rather than victory or peace. He said an important “milestone” had been reached with the end of America’s combat mission in Iraq. It was time “to turn the page,” he said, barely suppressing his relief at being able to do so.
He reiterated his commitment to helping the Iraqis weather the difficult transition ahead, acknowledging that winning the peace would mean continued combat and struggle by the 50,000 American forces left behind.
Almost ruefully, he called upon Iraqis to sense the urgent need to form a government to secure their own country. He did not note that 15 U.S. soldiers have died in the past month along with hundreds of Iraqis, referring instead to violence now being at its lowest levels since the war began.
The most moving and seemingly heartfelt part of the 17-minute speech was his tribute to the soldiers who have fought it — the “steel in our ship of state,” he praised them. But it must have been difficult for him to have visited the wounded at Walter Reed and the Gold Star mothers yesterday to thank them for their sacrifice in a war in which he never believed.
He did pay belated tribute to former President George W. Bush, saying that he had spoken to him on Tuesday — a “cordial discussion” that David Axelrod, the president’s White House advisor, downplayed. Obama called the former president a patriot, and conceded that “patriots” had both supported and opposed the Iraq war. But he could not resist noting that he and Mr. Bush had disagreed about the war from the start, and he did not credit his predecessor with the patience and fortitude that is generally conceded, rightly or wrongly, with having turned the catastrophic war around.
The speech had a dutiful quality to it. Now that we were leaving Iraq, we could turn to his essential war — the nearly ten-year battle in Afghanistan. Because of our “draw down in Iraq,” he said, America now had the resources to “go on offense” against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
But Al Qaeda has long left Afghanistan for safe havens in Pakistan and elsewhere. There was no mention of the Taliban, whose forces have reasserted themselves in areas where they had been defeated, and asserted themselves in areas where they had never been strong.
Mr. Obama’s “surge’ is under attack not only by many military analysts who doubt his effort to copy President Bush’s Iraqi strategy in Afghanistan and/or the 18 month deadline he has imposed for a draw down of American forces to begin, but also by many in his own party.
Indeed, the president had a wistful, almost beleaguered tone as he shifted from grim to grimmer. From a discussion of Iraq and Afghanistan he segued to the American economy, whose restoration he declared in an awkward transition, was America’s most crucial battle ground. Noting that we had spent a trillion dollars on the (implicitly) unnecessary wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he deplored the fact that for a “decade” — not on his watch, to be sure — America had postponed the tough policy decisions needed to shore up the economy that financed its wars abroad.
He reiterated a list of vague but vital economic tasks ahead — restoring lost jobs, retraining American workers, educating our youth, and conserving energy, which no administration has managed to do, including his.
With his popularity ratings at dangerous, all-time lows less than two years into his term, who can blame Mr. Obama for appearing overwhelmed? The problems confronting America are daunting indeed. And he now owns them.
Judith Miller is a writer, Manhattan Institute Scholar and Fox News contributor.