Saturday, September 04, 2010

Iraq: Turning pages and moving on

By Ernest Corea
Republished courtesy of
IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

WASHINGTON DC (IDN) – The crunch of convoys taking U.S. combat troops out of Iraq has been silenced. The sound of silence proclaims (at least for now?) that U.S. combat operations in Iraq have ended.

"We've removed nearly 100,000 U.S. troops from Iraq. We've closed or transferred to the Iraqis hundreds of bases. And we have moved millions of pieces of equipment out of Iraq. This completes a transition to Iraqis responsibility for their own security," President Barack Obama said in a message to the nation delivered from the White House Oval Office on Aug. 31.

The U.S. has "paid a huge price to put the future of Iraq in the hands of its people," Obama added. "We have sent our young men and women to make enormous sacrifices in Iraq, and spent vast resources abroad at a time of tight budgets at home.

"We've persevered because of a belief we share with the Iraqi people -- a belief that out of the ashes of war, a new beginning could be born in this cradle of civilization. Through this remarkable chapter in the history of the United States and Iraq, we have met our responsibility. Now, it's time to turn the page."


In choosing to speak from the Oval Office, Obama did what so many of his predecessors had done, elevating the importance of his message to the level he desired by bringing the nation right into the inner sanctum of presidential authority.

This was only Obama's second address to the nation from the Oval Office. His first was on British Petroleum's devastating oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

President Kennedy spoke on civil rights from the Oval Office. From the same location, President Ford told a bemused nation that he would be pardoning President Nixon. President George H. W. Bush announced the launch of what turned out to be a dramatically successful military action in the Persian Gulf.

More recently -- slightly over seven years ago -- President George W. Bush announced the beginning of "shock and awe" in Iraq. Obama's address amounted to standing the Bush strategy on its head, although he was nothing but courteous in his references to his predecessor -- thus, perhaps, driving what remains of his liberal base into yet another frenzy.

They might want to keep in mind this simple juxtaposition. Bush used the Oval Office to announce that he was sending American combat troops to fight in a war of dubious justification. They were deployed to "die for a lie," says political analyst and television commentator Lawrence O'Donnell. Obama used it to announce that combat troops have left the battle zone for home. What a difference.


Obama's Oval Office message had nothing of the outrage that washed over State Senator Obama's comments on war in 2002. Then, speaking at an anti-war rally in Chicago, he said: "I don't oppose all wars. And I know that in this crowd today, there is no shortage of patriots, or of patriotism. What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war.

"What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other arm-chair, weekend warriors in this Administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne….. That's what I'm opposed to. A dumb war. A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics."

The "politics" that concerned Obama at that time and thereafter are captured in this brief summary:
-- Richard N. Haas, president of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in "War of Necessity, War of Choice" that "the first instinct of the president (Bush) was to push the bureaucracy to find a connection between Saddam and the (9/11) attacks. Paul Wolfowitz, then deputy secretary of defense, argued at the Camp David meeting convened on September 14 that the attack was too grand for al-Qaida to have accomplished on its own and that the US should go after Iraq."

-- On Sept. 12, 2002, Bush told the UN General Assembly: "….we have been more than patient. We've tried the carrot of oil for food and the stick of coalition military strikes. But Saddam Hussein defied all these efforts and continues to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The first time we may be completely certain he has nuclear weapons is when, God forbid, he uses one. We owe it to all our citizens to do everything in our power to prevent that from coming."

-- On Feb. 14, 2003, Hans Blix, the head of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) formally addressed the UN Security Council, and through it the world, as follows: "How much, if any, is left of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and related proscribed items and programs? So far, UNMOVIC has not found any such weapons, only a small number of empty chemical munitions, which should have been declared and destroyed."

-- On March. 19, 2003, Bush launched the invasion of Iraq.

Up to now, no WMDs have been found in Iraq.


What's done has been done, and cannot be undone. Over 4000 U.S. military personnel died in Iraq. Neither they, nor the huge numbers of Iraqis who perished in the past seven years, can be resurrected. The serious, in some cases permanent, wounds of war suffered by thousands of Americans and Iraqis cannot be wished away. These bitter memories of the past that will endure.

But, let's turn the page, says Obama. His message is of a campaign pledge fulfilled, a milestone reached, and of a moment at which to start moving on.

To emphasize and broaden the reach of his message, the Obama Administration rolled out a public awareness program that reached out to both civilian and military audiences, with major roles at domestic events for Obama himself, Defence Secretary Robert Gates, Press spokesman Robert Gibbs, and other senior White House aides. Vice President Joe Biden was dispatched to Iraq as part of this effort.

Through all these activities, great care was taken to honor the military for their exemplary conduct and their families for the support they provided.

As Obama described it: "the Americans who have served in Iraq completed every mission they were given. They defeated a regime that had terrorized its people…… 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."

Some 50,000 American troops remain in Iraq. They are, presumably, "non-combatant" forces. Can troops deployed far from home in a land where elements of hostility lurk, really be considered non-combatant?

Well, the U.S. troops in Iraq are meant to take on non-combatant responsibilities, training their Iraqi partners and shoring up their preparedness. Their presence gives politicians in Baghdad more breathing space in which to continue arguing over legitimacy, just as their counterparts in Washington DC keep braying at each other.


Right now, perhaps, the most infuriating challenge confronting Iraq's leaders is the need for them to learn to read together from the same page.

Iraq's parliamentary election held earlier this year resulted in a stalemate. The party led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, al-Iraqiyya, secured 91 seats, and the State of Law Coalition led by current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki secured 89.

Both parties have been hunting for allies, but without success. Until a new government is formed and its legitimacy respected the country will remain politically vulnerable, with its security infirm.

The need for Iraq's political leadership to close ranks is so pressing that an equally urgent effort to reconcile differences should have been expected by now. Perhaps the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops will be an incentive for action.

The U.S., too, faces a major challenge, that of pulling the national economy out of the ditch into which unwise policies had taken it. An economically weak U.S. cannot possibly receive the respect and maintain the strength it requires to fulfill the global responsibilities that circumstances have cast on it.

Obama who inherited the down-in-the-ditch economy from his predecessor has been trying to get it out of there and he referred to the domestic challenge the U.S. faces, while delivering his Iraq-oriented address. He said:

"Unfortunately, over the last decade, we've not done what's necessary to shore up the foundations of our own prosperity. We spent a trillion dollars at war, often financed by borrowing from overseas. This, in turn, has short-changed investments in our own people, and contributed to record deficits. For too long, we have put off tough decisions on everything from our manufacturing base to our energy policy to education reform. As a result, too many middle-class families find themselves working harder for less, while our nation's long-term competitiveness is put at risk…..

"And so at this moment, as we wind down the war in Iraq, we must tackle those challenges at home with as much energy, and grit, and sense of common purpose as our men and women in uniform who have served abroad. They have met every test that they faced. Now, it's our turn…… Our most urgent task is to restore our economy....."

That is a greater challenge, with broader and deeper significance, than the bickering politicians in Iraq confront. (IDN-InDepthNews/03.09.2010)

Copyright © 2010 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

The writer has served as Sri Lanka's ambassador to Canada, Cuba, Mexico, and the USA. He was Chairman of the Commonwealth Select Committee on the media and development, Editor of the Ceylon 'Daily News' and the Ceylon 'Observer', and was for a time Features Editor and Foreign Affairs columnist of the Singapore 'Straits Times'. He is on the IDN editorial board.

Personal comment: Mike Hitchen Unleashed 1 September 2010: Turn the page? Let history be the voice of your dead