Obama warm to scientists, cold to soldiers

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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Two of President Barack Obama’s public appearances Friday provided a study in his starkly contrasting attitudes toward two very different constituencies: the scientific community and the United States military.

First, the president fulfilled his campaign promise to pull U.S. forces from Iraq by announcing the withdrawal of all troops by the end of 2011. His subdued briefing came from the dark blue White House press podium.

Less than two hours later, however, he used the bright and gilded East Room of the White House to formally present awards to top-flight scientists. After a military honor guard formally saluted the nation’s colors, Obama declared: “Thanks to the men and women on the stage, we are one step closer to curing diseases like cancer and Parkinson’s … I hope everybody enjoys this wonderful celebration and reception, and again, thank you so much for helping to make the world a better place.”

The president’s tone was markedly different as he announced the troop withdrawal, focusing more on regret than on victories won.

“As a candidate for president, I pledged to bring the war to a responsible end … After nearly nine years, America’s war in Iraq will be over,” he said at the start of his clipped, six-minute presentation. “There will be some difficult days ahead for Iraq … Here at home, the coming months will be another season of homecomings.”

Obama is already campaigning for re-election, and the troop withdrawal from Iraq will please the important progressive wing of the Democratic Party. That liberal faction boosted him into the presidency after he declared in 2002 that the proposed removal of Iraq’s dictator would be a “dumb war.”

Progressives often laud their university peers in the science sector, however. (RELATED: Romney, Bachmann call Iraq withdrawal a political decision)

“One of the best ways we can inspire more young people to think big, dream big dreams, is by honoring the people who already do: folks who are smart and aren’t afraid to show it, but also folks who have taken that brilliance and gone out and changed the world,” Obama said in the 20-minute ceremony, before a military aide read commendations while the president placed medals on 12 U.S. and foreign-born scientists.

“It’s important to recognize that work, and to help make it easier for inventors and innovators like them to bring their work from the lab to the marketplace and create jobs,” Obama beamed.

Instead of providing similar praise for the accomplishments of U.S. troops, however, Obama emphasized their suffering. “This December will be a time to reflect on all that we’ve been though in this war,” he said, not to celebrate the campaign’s accomplishments.

Obama did not mention Iraq’s deposed dictator, Saddam Hussein, nor the success of seeing democratic elections, nor the emergence of the long-suppressed Shia majority, nor the U.S. military’s remarkable victory against the coalition of Hussein’s die-hards, Sunni tribes, Iranian gunmen and Syrian-aided Islamist suicide bombers.

The most poignant moment came in a subsequent briefing by deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough. He said that during a morning video conference with the White House, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki showed “what appeared to me to be genuine appreciation of the sacrifice … that the troops and their families have put on the line for Iraq’s future.”

More than 4,500 U.S. and allied troops lost their lives — and nearly 30,000 sustained injuries — trying to establish and protect democracy in Iraq.

During his brief appearance, Obama did not mention al-Qaida’s strategic defeat in Iraq, coming as a result of Arabs’ collective recoil from Islamists’ suicide bombings aimed at other Arabs in Iraq’s cities and towns.

Despite growing opposition from ordinary Arabs and Muslims, al-Qaida used those shocking tactics because it believed that Bush’s plan to establish democracy in Iraq would be an ideological defeat of its core belief that the Arab world should be ruled by a Baghdad-based Muslim theocratic dictator — dubbed the caliph.

“The most important and serious issue today for the whole world is this Third World War, which the Crusader-Zionist coalition began against the Islamic nation,” said a 2004 message from Osama bin Laden. That war, he said, urging Islamist gunmen to fight in Iraq, “is raging in the land of the two rivers. The world’s millstone and pillar is in Baghdad, the capital of the caliphate.”

The “land of the two rivers” is Iraq, whose geography is framed by the Tigris and the Euphrates.

Now those gunmen and bin Laden are dead. And the capital of the would-be caliphate is under the secure control of an elected government and army led by Shia Muslims, who al-Qaida considers heretics.

During the Democratic presidential primary, Obama showed his opposition to the Iraq campaign by promising to withdraw U.S. troops, even if the departure resulted in a bloody civil war.

“Well, look, if that’s the criteria by which we are making decisions on the deployment of U.S. forces, then by that argument you would have 300,000 troops in the Congo right now — where millions have been slaughtered as a consequence of ethnic strife — which we haven’t done,” Obama told the Associated Press.

“It was the dominant issue [in the 2008 race and] … then-Senator Obama took a very clear position,” a White House spokesman said at Friday’s press conference.

Obama did include some brief references to the trials of U.S. troops.

“The last American soldier will cross the border out of Iraq with their heads held high, proud of their success,” he said, before he depicted the soldiers as wounded and in need of help from domestic government programs. “We’ll honor our many wounded warriors and the nearly 4,500 American patriots — and their Iraqi and coalition partners — who gave their lives to this effort … we’ll never stop working to give them and their families the care, the benefits and the opportunities that they have earned.”

Obama also played up U.S. diplomats’ role moving forward. “With our diplomats and civilian advisers in the lead,” the president said, “we’ll help Iraqis strengthen institutions that are just, representative and accountable.”

The president’s remarks ended with a call for Americans to turn inwards. “After a decade of war,” he said, “the nation that we need to build — and the nation that we will build — is our own.”

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