By Ben Feller
ABOVE PHOTO: President Barack Obama greets members of the military at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2010.
(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
WASHINGTON – Claiming no victory, President Barack Obama formally ended the U.S. combat role in Iraq after seven long years of bloodshed, declaring firmly Tuesday night: “It’s time to turn the page.” Now, he said, the nation’s most urgent priority is fixing its own sickly economy.
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 — a cost that now includes more than 4,400 troops dead, tens of thousands more wounded and hundreds of billions of dollars spent.
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 state of U.S. 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.
In his remarks of slightly less than 20 minutes, 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 U.S. and presidential flags behind him. His tone was somber.
Even as he turns control of the war over to the Iraqis — and tries to cap one of the most divisive chapters in recent American history — Obama is escalating the conflict in Afghanistan. He said that winding down Iraq would allow the United States “to apply the resources necessary to go on offense” in Afghanistan, now the nation’s longest war since Vietnam.
As for Iraq, for all the finality of Obama’s remarks, the war is not over. More Americans are likely to 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 day as more the marking of a mistake ended than a mission accomplished.
He spoke of strained relations with allies, anger at home and the heaviest of wartime tolls.
“We have met our responsibility,” Obama said. “Now it is time to turn the page.”
To underscore his point, Obama said he had telephoned called Bush, whom he had taunted so often in the 2008 campaign, and 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 a post-Sept. 11, 2001, world, the Iraq war began with bipartisan congressional backing — based on what turned out to be flawed intelligence — over what Bush called a “grave danger” to the world posed by Saddam Hussein. Hussein is gone and Iraqis live in greater freedom.
Yet Iraq’s leaders are unable to form a new government long after March elections that left no clear winner. The uncertainty has left an opening for insurgents to pound Iraqi security forces, hardly the conditions the U.S. envisioned when Obama set the Aug. 31 transition deadline last year.
Obama pressed Iraq’s leaders, saying it was time to show urgency and be accountable.
He also sought both to assure his own nation that the war was finally winding down and yet also promise Iraq and those watching across the Middle East that the U.S. 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 U.S. standing in the world in addition to stealing a 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.”
The president, 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 U.S. 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 House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio.
Boehner said that congressional leaders who opposed the troop surge that led to advances in Iraq are now taking credit for it.
“Today we mark not the defeat those voices anticipated — but progress,” Boehner said in an address to the American Legion’s national convention in Milwaukee.