Speaking at the Disabled American Veterans convention in Atlanta Monday, President Barack Obama reaffirmed his commitment to end the U.S. combat role in Iraq by the end of the August.
Of course, as Tom Ricks, an expert on the U.S. military often points out, the U.S. really only has combat troops, 50,000 of whom will still be in Iraq at the end of August, some of whom will be going on counterterrorism missions with Iraqi troops.
So there will still be a big presence of U.S. trigger pullers in Iraq after August and some of them no doubt will be pulling triggers.
Still, the significant reduction in U.S. troops under his watch, with U.S. troops being shifted to Afghanistan, allowed the president to assert that he had redeemed his campaign promise to unwind the U.S. presence in Iraq.
For a White House that's been hotly criticized by many in its liberal base for continuing its predecessor's reliance on military force, it was important to communicate that, from the administration's point of view, Obama was indeed offering something different.
The president said in part:
As a candidate for President, I pledged to bring the war in Iraq to a responsible end. (Applause.) Shortly after taking office, I announced our new strategy for Iraq and for a transition to full Iraqi responsibility. And I made it clear that by August 31st, 2010, America’s combat mission in Iraq would end. (Applause.) And that is exactly what we are doing -- as promised and on schedule. (Applause.)
Already, we have closed or turned over to Iraq hundreds of bases. We’re moving out millions of pieces of equipment in one of the largest logistics operations that we’ve seen in decades. By the end of this month, we’ll have brought more than 90,000 of our troops home from Iraq since I took office -- more than 90,000 have come home. (Applause.)
Today -- even as terrorists try to derail Iraq’s progress -- because of the sacrifices of our troops and their Iraqi partners, violence in Iraq continues to be near the lowest it’s been in years. And next month, we will change our military mission from combat to supporting and training Iraqi security forces. (Applause.) In fact, in many parts of the country, Iraqis have already taken the lead for security.
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. And during this period, our forces will have a focused mission -- supporting and training Iraqi forces, partnering with Iraqis in counterterrorism missions, and protecting our civilian and military efforts. These are dangerous tasks. There are still those with bombs and bullets who will try to stop Iraq’s progress. And the hard truth is we have not seen the end of American sacrifice in Iraq.
But make no mistake: Our commitment in Iraq is changing -- from a military effort led by our troops to a civilian effort led by our diplomats. And as we mark the end of America’s combat mission in Iraq, a grateful America must pay tribute to all who served there. (Applause.)
Steve Walt, a Harvard University international affairs expert, wrote on his blog on the Foreign Policy website that Obama just can't win on Iraq, try as he might:
Obama didn't get us into Iraq, and he's doing the right thing to get us out more-or-less on the schedule that the Bush adminstration negotiated back in 2008. But it's now clear that the much-vaunted "surge" was a strategic failure, and Iraq could easily spin back out of control once U.S. forces are gone. Even in the best case, Iraq can only be judged a defeat for the United States: we will have spent trillions of dollars and lost thousands of lives in order to bring to power an unstable government that is sympathetic to Iran and unlikely to be particularly friendly to the United States. Americans don't like losing, however, and Obama is going to get blamed for this outcome even though it was entirely his predecessor's fault.