Political Analysis Of Obama's Speech On Iraq

For more on the president's speech, Robert Siegel talks to political commentator E.J. Dionne, of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution; and Michelle Bernard, CEO of the conservative Independent Women's Forum.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And for more on the president's speech, I'm joined now by phone by our regular political commentator, E.J. Dionne, of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution, and by Michelle Bernard, CEO of the conservative Independent Women's Forum.

Welcome to both of you.

Ms. MICHELLE BERNARD (CEO, Independent Women's Forum): Good evening.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (Columnist, The Washington Post): Thank you.

SIEGEL: And, E.J., first, your assessment of the speech.

Mr. DIONNE: Well, he was trying to give a foreign policy speech to a nation that's exhausted by war, and focus on our problems at home. And he tried to stitch together both foreign and domestic concerns, using as a headline one of his favorite rhetorical devices from the 2008 campaign: It's time to turn the page.

He was very generous to President Bush. I thought he didn't re-litigate the war and whether we should have fought it. My hunch is that people who say the war is a disaster will wish he had been more critical. And Republicans will say, why didn't he mention the surge? But I think the generosity there was very powerful.

A very significant proportion of the speech was rightly attribute to our armed forces, their sacrifices, their family sacrifices, and that will go down well, simply because it was the right thing to do. But then, there was the turn in this speech, the turning page. And there really was one really tough line about what we've done here. He said, we have spent a trillion dollars at war, often financed by borrowing overseas. He said this shortchanged investments in our own people, contributed to record deficits.

I think that Democrats will wish he had talked more about domestic policy. Republicans will say he talked too much about domestic policy. He's hoping that the median American voter will say it was a Goldilocks speech that got the balance right.

SIEGEL: Well, we should say that while he didn't use the word surge, he did speak of changing tactics, and he spoke of American troops who had gone into neighborhoods, fought house to house.

Michelle Bernard, your reaction to President Obama's speech.

Ms. BERNARD: My reaction is, you know, I understand what E.J. is saying. I've heard others say it, that they thought that the President's speech tonight was very charitable to former President George Bush. I think that you will - that we will hear a lot of Republicans, a lot of conservatives, and maybe even families of military, members of the military, or the various members of the armed services, who might not necessarily feel that. If you go back and you look at the president's speech tonight, it was a very, very stark contrast to almost every single speech you heard by President George Bush when he talked about Iraq.

Tonight, President Obama used the word democracy only once. You know, he said that it was - that only Iraqis can build a democracy within their borders. And, you know, opponents of this war in Iraq have always said that it is not - that, you know, U.S. foreign policy should not be one of nation building and building democracies in the Middle East. And we didn't hear much about that at all tonight, you know.

I think that he was trying to say - he tried to make the pivot and say that we're changing direction. We've gone from Iraq to Afghanistan. And he made the pivot from Afghanistan to domestic policy. But very little talk if any, whatsoever, about the gains on what, you know, what the U.S. forces did achieve in Iraq.

We heard so much from former President Bush about, you know, fighting for freedom of religion, fighting for women's rights and equality, fighting for freedom of association. I think that we will find many people who will be asking the question if we spent so much money in Iraq, did we achieve any of these goals whatsoever? We've made the pivot, but please tell us what did we do, and did we achieve anything whatsoever over the last seven years in Iraq?

SIEGEL: E.J., just - back to you. What did you make of the president's characterization of what's been accomplished in Iraq? Did you sense the same lack that Michelle Bernard describes?

Mr. DIONNE: See, I respectfully disagree with Michelle here. I'm just looking at a passage: The Americans who have served in Iraq completed every mission they were given. They defeated a regime that had terrorized its people. They shifted tactics to protect the Iraqi people. Because of our troops and civilians, Iraq has the opportunity to embrace a new destiny.

Again, I think he was very generous to - as somebody who opposed the war, and he mentioned that he opposed the war, I think he spoke quite generously of what was accomplished by a war that he never thought we should have fought. And I think it was natural for him, once he had done that, to say, but there were losses here. And the losses were mostly felt at home. And now it's time to fix things at home.

I think that, you know, you probably have a fair number of liberals who will say, he didn't even have to go that far. But I think what he's trying to do is really write an introduction to the next phase of his presidency and see if there's any way to get out of the old arguments - again, an argument he made in '08.

SIEGEL: Michelle Bernard, I'll give you very briefly the last word.

Ms. BERNARD: I will say that president - what I did like about President Obama's speech tonight was when he talked about the fact that it is now up to Iraqis to build a just representative and accountable government. I do think that there will be many people who will ask, why not just use the term build a democratic Iraq?

SIEGEL: Michelle Bernard of the Independent Women's Forum, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post, thanks to both of you.

Ms. BERNARD: Thank you.

Mr. DIONNE: Thank you.

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