Obama: End Of Iraq Combat Mission No 'Victory Lap'
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
President Obama visited U.S. troops at Fort Bliss, outside El Paso, Texas, today. Many of them have just returned from Iraq. The president's visit was a prelude to the Oval Office speech he will give tonight about the troop drawdown.
Mr. Obama told the young men and women that he won't be taking a victory lap tonight or making a congratulatory speech. Instead, he said he will be honoring them.
President BARACK OBAMA: Because of the extraordinary service that all of you have done, and so many people here at Fort Bliss have done, Iraq has an opportunity to create a better future for itself, and America is more secure.
SIEGEL: Tonight will be just the second time the president has addressed the nation from the Oval Office. The first was on the BP oil spill, and it shows the significance the White House attaches to this milestone.
NPR's Mara Liasson joins us now to discuss the speech. And Mara, we know the president will not be declaring anything like mission accomplished tonight. That slogan got his predecessor in a lot of trouble. What will he say?
MARA LIASSON: Well, if the slogan isn't mission accomplished, I think the banner, if he had one, could read: Promises kept. That's one of the main messages of the president's speech tonight. As a candidate, he promised to end the combat mission in Iraq.
He said he'd have all combat troops out in 16 months. It turns out it was 19 months, but he wants to remind people that he kept his promise, he did what he said he would do. And that's an important message, particularly to the base of the Democratic Party, which like the president, when he was a senator, was opposed to the war.
He'll also talk about Afghanistan tonight and the fact that his government's focus is on that war now. And he'll talk about the fact that the drawdown in Iraq frees up resources to do what he has referred to as nation-building here at home.
SIEGEL: Will he talk about what's next in Iraq?
LIASSON: Yes, he will. There are still 50,000 troops in Iraq. They're in an advisory role. They're assisting in counterterrorism operations. There's still lots of violence, and there's not a government yet in Iraq.
So he's going to say the U.S. is going to have a long-term relationship with the Iraqi government. There is an agreement that George W. Bush worked out with the Iraqis for the entire U.S. presence, all troops to be out by July, 2011.
And while the president won't say so tonight, it is possible that if the Iraqis request it that could be extended.
SIEGEL: Mara, I understand that the president talked with former president George W. Bush today on the phone before he arrived at Fort Bliss. Do we know anything about what was said in that conversation?
LIASSON: We don't. We don't know much. It must have been an interesting conversation. President Bush, of course, ordered the U.S. invasion, which Barack Obama opposed. He ordered up the surge of troops there when the war wasn't going very well, and that was also a policy that then-Senator Obama opposed.
And Republicans have been clamoring for the president to admit he was wrong and give his predecessor credit for the success of the surge.
Now, White House aides haven't said whether President Obama plans to give his predecessor any credit. Certainly, he will not say he was wrong. But he has adopted basically the same surge strategy in Afghanistan, to kind of ramp up the number of troops there in the hopes of being able to stabilize the country as they did in Iraq and get out.
SIEGEL: With in fact the same general.
LIASSON: With the same general, as it turns out.
SIEGEL: Thank you, Mara.
LIASSON: Thank you, Robert.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's Mara Liasson.
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