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Op-Ed

A Dicey Moment in Iraq

Michael E. O’Hanlon

President Obama has done a good job to date on Iraq policy. But he needs to be very careful in his speech Tuesday night. Technically, he did not necessarily fulfill his campaign promise on the Iraq War, and so it is important for him not to overstate that point. That, however, is a relatively minor issue, since he arguably has fulfilled the spirit of his campaign pledges so far. The crux of the matter is that, for him, the hard work on Iraq is actually happening right now. So, it is a dicey moment to spend too much time looking backward or celebrating transitions, even if some of that is warranted and appropriate.

First, a word on campaign promises. Before becoming president, Mr. Obama said he would have all the U.S. combat troops out of Iraq within 16 months—though sometimes he also spoke of an even faster schedule, since he would occasionally state that he intended to pull out one to two combat brigades per month (and there were 15 in the country when he was inaugurated). In fact, after 19 months of the Obama presidency, we still have five brigades and 50,000 troops in the country, with their full suites of weaponry. They have been redesignated as advise and assist brigades, but their composition and their capabilities still have 85 to 90 percent overlap with traditional combat units. And they will continue to go on joint patrols, man joint checkpoints with Iraqis and otherwise continue many of the tasks that they were carrying out before. Also, in the absence of a peace treaty or ceasefire accord, we do not really get to decide here in Washington when combat is over.

All that said, Mr. Obama and his administration, most notably Vice President Biden, have been impressive on this issue. They adopted a careful version of a troop drawdown (I see all the above deviations from the actual campaign promises as good, not bad, because they demonstrate pragmatism and prudence). They steered Iraqis through a difficult election process this past winter with diligent behind-the-scenes diplomacy. They are building up a strong civilian-led mission for September 1 and onwards. And they have been working hard this spring and summer, albeit without success to date, to encourage the Iraqis to form a new coalition government.


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