Washington: President Barack Obama on Tuesday ended the US combat mission in Iraq, declaring no victory after seven years of bloodshed, and telling Americans and the world: “It is time to turn the page.”
From the Oval Office, where George W. Bush first announced the invasion that would come to define his presidency, Obama addressed millions who were divided over the war in his country and around the world. Fiercely opposed to the war from the start, he said the United States “has paid a huge price” to give Iraqis the chance to shape their future.
In a telling sign of the domestic troubles weighing on the United States and his own presidency, Obama turned much of the emphasis in a major war address to the dire rate of US joblessness. He said the Iraq war had stripped America of money needed for its own prosperity, and he called for an economic commitment at home to rival the grit and purpose of a military campaign.
The speech, lasting slightly less than 20 minutes, was only his second address from the Oval Office. Obama looked directly into the TV camera, hands clasped in front of him on his desk, family photos and the US and presidential flags behind him. His tone was somber.
Even as he tries to cap one of the most divisive chapters in recent American history, Obama is escalating the conflict in Afghanistan. He pledged anew that the United States would keep up the fight in that war, the longest once since Vietnam.
In Iraq, for all the finality, the war is not over. More Americans probably will die. The country is plagued by violence and political instability, and Iraqis struggle with constant shortages of electricity and water.
Obama is keeping up to 50,000 troops in Iraq for support and counterterrorism training, and the last forces are not due to leave until the end of 2011 at the latest.
As the commander in chief over a war he opposed, Obama took pains to thank troops for their sacrifice but made clear he saw the moment more as a mistake ended than a mission accomplished. He spoke of strained relations with allies, anger at home and a “huge price” of the highest order.
The toll includes more than 4,400 US troops dead and many more Iraqis, tens of thousands more Americans wounded, and hundreds of billions of dollars spent.
To underscore his point of ending the divisiveness over Iraq, Obama said he had called Bush, whom he had taunted so often in the 2008 presidential campaign. He prominently praised the former Republican president in the heart of his speech.
“It’s well known that he and I disagreed about the war from its outset,” Obama said. “Yet no one could doubt President Bush’s support for our troops, or his love of country and commitment to our security.”
In the aftermath of the 11 September, 2001 terrorist attacks, the Iraq war began with bipartisan congressional backing, based on what turned out to be flawed intelligence that Iraq was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction.
Today, Iraq is in political turmoil, its leaders unable to form a new government long after March elections that left no clear winner. The uncertainty has created an opening for insurgents to pound Iraqi security forces, hardly the conditions the United States envisioned for this transition deadline, which Obama announced 18 months ago.
Obama pressed Iraq’s leaders, saying it was time to show some urgency and be accountable.
At once, Obama sought to assure Americans that the war was finally winding down, and yet also promise Iraq and those watching across the Middle East that the US was not simply walking away.
“Our combat mission is ending,” he said, “but our commitment to Iraq’s future is not.”
The American public has largely moved on from the Iraq war. Almost forgotten is the intensity that defined the debate for much of the decade and drove people into streets in protest.
Yet what grew out of the war was something broader: Bush’s doctrine of pre-emptive force against perceived threats. Running for office, Obama said the war inflamed anti-American sentiments and undermined US standing in the world in addition to stealing the focus from Afghanistan.
He made mention of it again on Tuesday: “Indeed, one of the lessons of our effort in Iraq is that American influence around the world is not a function of military force alone.”
Obama, though, also was presented with a tricky moment standing firm in his position without disparaging the sacrifice and courage of those who fought.
Earlier in the day, at Fort Bliss, Texas, a post that has endured losses during the war, Obama tried to tell the stretched military that all the work and bloodshed in Iraq was not in vain. He asserted that because of the US efforts in the Iraq war, “America is more secure.”
Not everyone was ready to embrace the White House view of the day.
“Over the past several months, we’ve often heard about ending the war in Iraq but not much about winning the war in Iraq,” said John Boehner, Republican leader in the House of Representatives.