An agreement, reached last year, on the future of U.S. forces in Iraq says that all American troops must be out of Iraq by 2011. So it is not surprising that President Barack Obama announced he will withdraw the majority of U.S. forces by the middle of next year. The president’s plan to end combat operations in Iraq in coming months and transition to a U.S. presence based on training and support is an encouraging step toward the dual goals of equipping and allowing the Iraqis to determine their own future while bringing U.S. troops home.
It must be noted, however, that part of President Obama’s speech on Iraq, made before Marines at Camp Lejeune, N.C., on Friday, were reminiscent of his predecessor. His talk of “training, equipping and advising Iraqi security forces … as they take the absolute lead in securing their country,” was a different version of President Bush’s “as the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down.”
Necessarily, President Obama also pledged to consult U.S. commanders on the ground and to remain flexible in what needs to be done to support Iraq and its government.
What is different about President Obama’s view of Iraq is honesty about the complexity of the difficulties there and the limits to what America can achieve there.
“We cannot rid Iraq of all who oppose America or sympathize with our adversaries,” he said at the Marine Corps base. “We cannot police Iraq’s streets until they are completely safe, nor stay until Iraq’s union is perfected. We cannot sustain indefinitely a commitment that has put a strain on our military, and will cost the American people nearly a trillion dollars.
“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. Now, we must ask the Iraqi people to seize it.”
To do this, the president pledged to remove U.S. combat forces over the next 18 months. That means about 100,000 troops will likely leave the country by then. Up to 50,000 soldiers will remain. They — in a mission that sounds a lot like legislation sponsored by Sen. Susan Collins — will focus on training Iraqi security forces and counter-terrorism activities.
The number of troops to remain in Iraq surprised and angered many Democrats in Congress who expected a more complete U.S. withdrawal. Many Republicans, including Sen. John McCain, praised the president’s plan for its realism. Sen. McCain, who mocked Sen. Obama’s plans to withdraw troops within 16 months during the presidential campaign, said he supported this plan, in part, because military commanders said it was reasonable.
The president also put Iraq in its proper perspective in terms of both domestic fiscal problems — the war costs too much — and Middle Eastern diplomacy — it is part of a larger discussion, that includes working toward peace between Israel and the Palestinians, keeping nuclear weapons out of Iran and quelling al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
President Obama’s plan is not a sweeping change in policy in Iraq, but rather a necessary, reasonable and transparent step toward ending U.S. involvement there.