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Obama gets it right on Iraq

By Marc Lynch

I thought Obama's speech on Iraq this afternoon was outstanding.It laid out a powerful rationale for the new policy, sent a very clear signal to Iraqis about American intentions, placed American policy firmly within the context of the Status of Forces Agreement negotiated with the Iraqi government, and embedded the policy effectively into its wider regional context.  I know that some on the left are worried about the 50,000 figure for the residual force and about the timeline, but I think those concerns are overblown.The plan Obama laid out today is entirely consistent with his campaign promises and -- more important -- is the right strategy for today's Iraq.

Here's what I liked:

  • The very clear signal. "The drawdown of our military should send a clear signal that Iraq’s future is now its own responsibility."Obama stressed repeatedly and clearly that he was bringing the war to an end -- "Let me say this as plainly as I can: by August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end" -- and that all troops would leave Iraq in accord with the SOFA by December 31, 2011. Everything I've written over the last year has emphasized the importance of the clarity of this signal. This is more important than the specifics of the pace or number of troop withdrawals -- which are better handled by the military commanders and diplomats on the ground -- because it gets to shaping the political calculations of Iraqis and Iraq's neighbors. Obama did this extremely well today, taking pains to reiterate and to flag his signaling so that it could not be misinterpreted.
  • Iraqi responsibility. Obama also did an outstanding job of framing the U.S. drawdown in terms of a shift to Iraqi responsibility: "The drawdown of our military should send a clear signal that Iraq’s future is now its own responsibility. The long-term success of the Iraqi nation will depend upon decisions made by Iraq’s leaders and the fortitude of the Iraqi people." This emphasis throughout the speech on the agency of Iraqis deserves particular attention and praise. Gone is the assumption that what happens in Iraq is all about America, that only the force of American will and material commitment matters.The future of Iraq is for Iraqis to decide, not Americans.
  • Public diplomacy. Obama's decision to speak directly to the Iraqi people -- and not only to Iraqi leaders -- was brilliantly conceived and executed. His very clear statement that the U.S. had no aspirations on Iraqi territory or resources -- no permanent bases -- was pitch perfect. And I just really liked this frank, direct, respectful talk:
So to the Iraqi people, let me be clear about America’s intentions. The United States pursues no claim on your territory or your resources. We respect your sovereignty and the tremendous sacrifices you have made for your country. We seek a full transition to Iraqi responsibility for the security of your country. And going forward, we can build a lasting relationship founded upon mutual interests and mutual respect as Iraq takes its rightful place in the community of nations."
  • Realistic goals. Last September Brian Katulis and I argued that "the United States will have to distinguish between those outcomes that are truly catastrophic and those that are simply suboptimal." Obama did so clearly today: "What we will not do is let the pursuit of the perfect stand in the way of achievable goals." This, combined with the emphasis on Iraqi responsibility, demonstrates a very healthy realism about the enterprise which has too often been lacking from American rhetoric.
  • Respecting the SOFA. Obama referred repeatedly to the Status of Forces Agreement, which others have preferred to ignore or wish away.
  • Regional context. He correctly placed Iraq within its wider regional context: "America can no longer afford to see Iraq in isolation from other priorities".His commitment to direct engagement with all Iraq's neighbors -- including Syria and Iran, singled out -- and higher expectations for their positive contributions fits well within his strategic vision for the region. With the Arab states unifying their ranks ahead of next month's Doha Summit, and Kuwait's Foreign Minister paying a historic visit to Baghdad today, I expect significant movement here in the near term.
  • Refugees. I was heartened to hear Obama put such prominence on the issue of Iraq's displaced and refugees, and to define their plight as both a strategic interest and a moral responsibility for the United States.

No plan is perfect. I would like to have heard more about the pace of troop withdrawals, particularly in the early going. The role of the residual force could have been better explained. But I must say that I am far less concerned about the size of the residual forces than are others on the Left. Such a residual force was always a part of Obama's campaign platform, and -- more importantly -- is perfectly consistent with the Status of Forces Agreement, which does not require U.S. troops to leave until the end of 2011. Their mission will change, and they will play an important role in training and support for the Iraqi government and security forces. Nor am I at all bothered by the two month difference between the campaign promise and the timeline in the speech -- and can't imagine that anybody else is either.

Obama's speech today was all that I had hoped, especially after yesterday's conflicting reports. It very closely follows his campaign commitments.It maintains a clear timeline for withdrawal, and sends the clear, unambiguous signal that Iraqis and the region needed to hear while re-emphasizing America's commitment to engagement with the region. It puts Iraqis first and defines a normal, positive future relationship between governments and peoples. And it does this with a frank recognition of Iraq's continuing fragility and plethora of unresolved political fissures, and the tough road ahead. And most remarkable of all, he may even succeed in commanding a bipartisan and inter-agency consensus in support of this policy at home.

This speech is something for which I and many, many others have been waiting -- and working -- for a long, long time. There's much hard work to come, but the die is cast and the signal is clear.

Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

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