President Obama: U.S. Combat Mission In Iraq Over

Last night, President Obama declared that U.S. combat operations in Iraq are over. Hisham Melhem, Washington Bureau Chief for Al Aribiya News, discusses how the speech resonated in the Arab world. And Ed Dorn, former Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness under President Clinton, offers a perspective on how military personnel may respond to the change.

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TONY COX, host:

I'm Tony Cox. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

After the president's Oval Office speech focused on Iraq, the White House pivoted to jumpstarting the first direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in 20 months. We'll hear from NPR's Michele Kelemen on that in just a few moments. Then pivot ourselves to talk to young people from either side of that Middle East divide working to come together.

But, first, to the president's talk to the nation marking the end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq. Barack Obama said the United States and its allies successfully defeated the Iraqi regime that terrorized its people.

President BARACK OBAMA: Together with Iraqis and coalition partners who made huge sacrifices of their own, our troops fought block by block to help Iraq seize the chance for a better future. They shifted tactics to protect the Iraqi people, trained Iraqi security forces and took out terrorist leaders.

Because of our troops and civilians, and because of the resilience of the Iraqi people, Iraq has the opportunity to embrace a new destiny, even though many challenges remain.

COX: President Obama was careful not to say the war is over. His predecessor, President George W. Bush, is often taken to task by critics for a mission accomplished banner that was hung for a speech less than two months after the war in Iraq began. Mr. Obama instead said the U.S. combat mission is over and said all American troops would be out of Iraq by the end of next year.

Joining me now with a perspective on what the president's vision for Iraq means for the U.S. military, their troops and their families is Ed Dorn, former undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness under President Clinton, and a professor of public affairs at the University of Texas.

Also with us to talk about the speech and how the Iraq war in general has resonated in the Arab world is Hisham Melhem, Washington Bureau chief for Al Arabiya News, an Arabic language news network based in Dubai and broadcast throughout the Middle East.

Gentlemen, welcome, both of you.

Professor ED DORN (Public Affairs, University of Texas): Thanks a lot, Tony.

Mr. HISHAM MELHEM (Washington Bureau Chief, Al Arabiya News): Thank you.

COX: Ed Dorn, I'd like to begin with you. How important is it for U.S. military personnel especially to see the end of military operations in Iraq?

Prof. DORN: They've been at it for a long time, Tony. I think most military personnel really are quite proud of the job they've done. As far as they're concerned, they have done what their commanders in chief asked them to do. But that mission was becoming quite a strain, especially on the Marine Corps and the Army with troops going through multiple deployments.

So everybody is pleased to see that drawdown and perhaps some opportunity to give those soldiers a little more time at home. They're also mindful, of course, that there is still the huge Afghan operation going on and that probably is going to occupy some of them for a while to come.

COX: Some of them have been asked on television and in print and on radio as well, whether they thought this was a victory or not a victory and how they felt about wherever we landed somewhere between victory and something short of that. How significant is that for the people who were fighting there?

Prof. DORN: Tony, I think the soldiers think in terms of accomplishing specific concrete missions every day. They don't think in terms of some overwhelming victory. They all know that there's not going to be a great peace-signing ceremony and they all know that there are going to be tensions in that region for years and years to come.

President Obama phrased it pretty well: The U.S. forces have given the Iraqis an opportunity to rebuild their societies, to develop responsive political institutions. And now they have to demonstrate the ability to do that.

COX: Hisham Melhem, let me bring me you in. The president spoke to a domestic audience, of course, but he was - or was he, actually - the question to you - successful or how successful would you say he was in reaching beyond America's borders to gain the confidence of the Arab world?

Mr. MELHEM: Well, I could tell you that the speech was highly anticipated. There were no surprises and people knew that. I can tell you that my network and other networks covered it live. We did extensive commentary afterwards. It was too late for the papers in the Middle East to cover it, although many of them covered the speech to the troops in Texas yesterday.

And they noted, I noted and other people and commentators noted that the president's tone was sober, serious and definitely not triumphalist. And maybe because the president understands that this is not a typically conventional war where you have a victor and a vanquished or an official ceremony of surrender or final peace.

And maybe because he also understands that the war is not over in one sense because this was a conventional warfare at one time initially. And as the president said himself, it turned out later into a counterinsurgency. It was partly a civil war. It's a war against al-Qaida and terrorism.

So he understands that violence will remain present in the immediate future of Iraq. And he also, thankfully, probably realizes what many Americans realize, too, that this country, this American society where more than a million and a half men and women served in Iraq over the last seven and a half years, where you have 4,500 who died and ultimately paid the ultimate price in Iraq, and you have 32,000 wounded, many of them seriously wounded who lost limbs in Iraq, that this society, the American society will live in the shadow of the war in Iraq for years to come.

COX: Let me stop you there to first of all, let people know that you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq with Ed Dorn, former undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness. And Hisham Melhem, a Washington bureau chief for Al Arabiya News.

Let's hear a bit more from the president last night. Here he is.

Pres. OBAMA: We must never lose sight of what's at stake. As we speak, al-Qaida continues to plot against us and its leadership remains anchored in the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan. We will disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida while preventing Afghanistan from again serving as a base for terrorists.

COX: Let me ask you, Ed Dorn, about the language that the president used in his address last night. How significant is both what he did say about the end of the conflict and moving forward, as well as what he didn't say with regard to the surge and the position of President Bush?

Prof. DORN: He uses this alliterative language: disrupt, dismantle, defeat al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I don't believe the president has given the American people an opportunity to focus on how large a challenge that's going to be. These are folks who, after all, live in the territory, they know the country. And they are perfectly capable of fading into the woodwork, or as it were, into the mountains of that border region for months or years until they see an opportunity to make mischief again. So Afghanistan is really going to be a tougher challenge than Iraq has been.

COX: Before I come back to you, Hisham, with another question, I want to follow this up with you, Ed Dorn, because this all began in Iraq ostensibly because of what happened at 9/11, as we look now almost a decade later. Is there, and what kind of connection do you think military personnel are drawing today with our exit from Iraq in the way that we got into it?

Prof. DORN: My guess is that the senior military personnel are quite aware that Iraq was a diversion, unnecessary, but it is not their job to make those decisions. Part of our political culture is that military personnel will respond whenever the commander-in-chief says go.

So they devised the best war plan they could. The failings in Iraq fall solely on the nation's civilian leaders, on President Bush, on Secretary Rumsfeld, on Paul Wolfowitz, and especially on Paul Bremer, who made some of the most disastrous decisions with regard to stabilizing Iraq.

COX: Hisham, I'd like to come to you with something that's a little bit off topic. Because of your connection with Al Arabiya, we wanted to get your response to this. There's been a great deal of domestic debate, as I am sure you are aware, about the proposed Islamic center in Lower Manhattan. How has that debate played out on Al Arabiya and throughout the Middle East?

Mr. MELHEM: We covered it from Washington and New York. And also, I wrote about three or four articles on it for my paper in Beirut and this is a serious issue. And I tried to highlight this in my own writings, the nature of the debate in this country and that it is difficult for people in the Middle East to generalize about certain groups or political groups in this country.

And I said that - talked about the debate within the Jewish community, about the debate within the Republican Party, the position of the president, the constitutional issues involved and freedom of religion in this country. So this was a serious issue. And obviously some people here are using it for political purposes and abusing it, to put it bluntly and simply.

Also, people in the Middle East and the Muslim world are going to use it to their own benefits and they are going to twist it and they are going to give it their own spins and use it in their political debates.

COX: I've got about 30 seconds for you to answer this: Do you see a connection at all with regard to how the Arab world looks at President Obama given this debate over the mosque, as well as how the war has come to an end?

Mr. MELHEM: Well, some people believe them and argue erroneously, in my opinion, that there is an America - a huge current event - Muslim tendencies and that maybe the controversy over the mosque is related to U.S. foreign policy in the Arab and the Muslim world. Now, there may be reverberations here and there but, you know, at least in my opinion, these are two separate things.

And while there are voices in this country that do not understand Islam and don't care if they generalize about a million and plus people...

COX: We've got to stop there.

Mr. MELHEM: ...sensitivity towards Islam.

COX: The time has run out, unfortunately. Let me stop you, Hisham. I appreciate it. Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya. Ed Dorn, former undersecretary of Defense of Personnel. Thank you both very much.

Prof. DORN: Thank you, Tony.

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