Declaring victory in shaky Iraq

Declaring victory in shaky Iraq

ATLANTA — In his speech Monday about troop drawdowns in Iraq, President Barack Obama used variations of the word “promise” seven times in just 35 minutes.

“I made it clear that by Aug. 31, 2010, America’s combat mission in Iraq would end,” Obama announced to cheers at the national convention of Disabled American Veterans. “And that is exactly what we are doing — as promised and on schedule.”

His rhetoric was triumphant, the subtext unmistakable: A president whose journey to the White House was powered in part by the support of anti-Iraq war activists is ready to end U.S. involvement on his terms, hoping to be credited with both political and policy success.

But Obama’s version of victory requires embracing a definition of success that fits almost no one’s definition of ideal. And it glossed over the continued flow of frustrations facing the administration as it tries to extract itself from the Iraqi problem handed to it by the preceding administration in order to give more attention and resources to another vexing inheritance: the war in Afghanistan.

His description of Iraqi security – “violence in Iraq continues to be near the lowest it’s been in years” – stood in contrast to the headlines coming out of Iraq, including 535 dead last month, a total news reports attribute to the Iraqi government. White House authorities and the US military dispute that figure, however, having recorded about half that number of casualties — a far lower death toll than during the height of the violence in 2008.

The president mentioned the Iraqi government only once in his speech — simply to note that, “as agreed to with the Iraqi government, we will maintain a transitional force until we remove all our troops from Iraq by the end of next year.” But Iraqi political leaders have been at an impasse for five months over the formation of a government — despite a hands-on approach from the White House, includinga visit from Vice President Joe Biden.

On the left, Iraq war skeptics must reconcile themselves to the reality that a president who shares their skepticism — Obama once called it a “dumb war” — is declaring the end to the combat mission but still proposing to leave 50,000 U.S. troops in the country.

On the right, Iraq hawks said Monday that Obama was moving hastily to declare success despite scant evidence that the requisite conditions are in place to ensure long-term stability.

Yet the drawdown is continuing this month, and the president, the vice president and others in the White House will spend the next few weeks touting the withdrawal as an American success.

“What happened after the surge is, everybody said, ‘Oh, violence is down.’ And really, they didn’t accomplish everything they thought they would,” said Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “Nonetheless, the Iraqis have said, ‘Look, we want to handle our own problems.’ Eventually, they’re going to have to form a government, which they haven’t been able to do since March. They’re going to have to make sure the security forces are loyal to the state. … And they won’t do any of that until they can handle their political problems.”

Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center and a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, was more direct: “Iraq is likely to be unstable for the foreseeable future.”

“There’s a vacuum in Iraq now, and it’s getting worse and more serious in terms of the upsurge in violence that we’ve seen over the past month,” he said.

Speaking to Marines at Camp Lejeune, N.C., in 2009, the president spoke repeatedly about Iraq’s government, saying at one point, “We kept our troops in Iraq to help establish a sovereign government.” But after seven years of a U.S. presence, the country is still rocked by an insurgency looking to fill a political vacuum.

The White House emphasized the positive Monday, noting that Iraq now has a freely elected government, a functional military and increased security. Bill Burton, White House deputy press secretary, said the Iraqi government is “very stable” and rejected the notion that the impasse has created a vacuum insurgents will fill.

“It’s important to focus on the real success that the Iraqi people have had at democracy here,” Burton told reporters Monday. “And in terms of a governing vacuum, the fact that the government is functioning right now and … is pretty effectively taking on the duties that are prescribed to governments is a good sign.”

Addressing the violence, Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said that even with recent attacks, the levels of violence “are consistent with the dramatically reduced indicators that we’ve seen over the last couple of years in terms of U.S. and Iraqi casualties.”

This month, Obama, Biden and other administration officials will tout Iraq as an administration success. The polls seem to be on the administration’s side: More than half of Americans approve of the way Obama has handled Iraq, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey, and a clear majority of those surveyed oppose the war. Furthermore, an ABC News/Washington Post poll last month found that 55 percent of Americans think the Iraq war wasn’t worth fighting.

But pro-war Republicans are already suggesting the president is sacrificing national security for his domestic poll numbers by leaving Iraq.

“I think the decision to continue the withdrawal of the combat troops to meet the deadline that was previously negotiated is a mistake,” said John Bolton, a former United Nations ambassador under George W. Bush and a senior fellow at American Enterprise Institute. “The president’s decision to proceed with the schedule is fundamentally a political decision — a domestic U.S. political decision.”

Meanwhile, anti-war liberals are criticizing Obama’s decision to leave troops behind as a “transition force.”

Medea Benjamin, cofounder of the anti-war group CODEPINK, said, “We should admit what a disaster this whole effort has been. We think that we should completely withdraw — including the contractors — and close the bases.”

In his Camp Lejeune speech, Obama seemed to anticipate the mixed reaction the withdrawal would bring.

“What we will not do is let the pursuit of the perfect stand in the way of achievable goals,” he said. “We cannot rid Iraq of all who oppose America or sympathize with our adversaries. We cannot police Iraq’s streets until they are completely safe, nor stay until Iraq’s union is perfected,” straining the military and the U.S. economy.

“America’s men and women in uniform have fought block by block, province by province, year after year, to give the Iraqis this chance to choose a better future,” he said. “Now, we must ask the Iraqi people to seize it.”

Mike Allen and Giovanni Russonello contributed to this report.