Obama's Iraq Address Misses the Mark

President Obama’s Oval Office speech on Tuesday night celebrating the end of American combat operations in Iraq included four messages but failed to address our most pressing regional problem, Iran. That was a strategic mistake.

The Islamic Republic of Iran is arguably at the center of every security problem in the Middle East. It defies logic how Obama could deliver his most important foreign policy address to date and completely ignore Iran. No doubt, Tehran was pleased with the speech and our allies are rightly nervous.

Consider Obama’s four somewhat disjointed messages and then what he should have said about Iran.

First, he confirmed his intent to leave Iraq next year whether Baghdad is ready or not. He used the speech to formally announce the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the beginning of Operation New Dawn, our “advise and assist” mission.

The President said the “Iraqi people now have lead responsibility for the security of their country.” He admitted there is still a lot of violence but expressed confidence Iraq will eventually contain the problem.

On Aug. 25 alone, militants conducted 34 attacks in 16 cities across Iraq that killed at least 77 and wounded more than 400. Iraqis are buying weapons to defend themselves and key leaders are complaining that America’s withdraw is premature.

Obama encouraged Iraq’s leaders to move forward with a sense of urgency to form an inclusive government—now six months in the making—but then announced “all U.S. troops will leave by the end of next year.” He pledged even though “our combat mission is ending … our commitment to Iraq’s future is not.” He failed to clarify that “commitment.”

Obama’s second message was to the parties engaged in the Afghan war. He announced Washington’s clock in Afghanistan begins running out next summer.

He warned the American people “Don’t lose sight of what’s at stake.” Then he restated the threat, our strategy, and policy objective in Afghanistan. He said “al Qaeda continues to plot against us, and its leadership remains anchored in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan.” His strategy which was first announced last December remains to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda, and his policy objective “is to prevent Afghanistan from again serving as a base for terrorists.”

Obama referenced his 30,000-man surge in Afghanistan and reminded the American people that our additional troops are “under the command of General David Petraeus,” the author of our success in Iraq. 

“As with the surge in Iraq,” Obama said, “these forces will be in place for a limited time to provide space for the Afghans to build their capacity and secure their own future.” But then he cautioned, “next July, we will begin a transition to Afghan responsibility.” He intends to begin troop reductions next summer “because open-ended war serves neither our interests nor the Afghan people’s.”

The President’s restatement of his intent to begin withdrawing forces next summer sealed any hope we have that the counterinsurgency will ever work. Historically, successful counterinsurgencies on average take 14 years.

Obama’s third message was to the American people and was an indirect plea for patience. He indicated the end of combat operations in Iraq allowed him to shift resources to Afghanistan and by implication to finish that war sooner. 

His plea for patience was linked to widespread concern about the economy. Almost as if he considers our wars a distraction, Obama said “Our most urgent task is to restore our economy, and put the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs back to work.” He understands that his sinking job performance polling is tied to the economy and not to the wars.

His final message was to the veterans. “Our troops are the steel in our ship of state,” the commander in chief said. He praised their sacrifice and pledged “to maintain the finest fighting force that the world has ever known” and “to serve our veterans as well as they have served us.” He promised long-term healthcare and funding for education.

These messages—Iraq, Afghanistan, the economy, and veterans—were loosely linked together. But he missed an opportunity to deliver a message to the radical regime in Iran. 

Iran is behind the unrest in Iraq, feeds the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, and threatens to cut-off the flow of Persian Gulf oil which could devastate the global economy. Its nuclear weapons program will soon spark a Middle East arms race which will create nightmares for the Pentagon.

Obama as the leader of the free world should never miss an opportunity to show the connection of crises, warn our adversaries, and reassure our allies. 

The President should have used his speech to make clear that America will stay at Iraq’s side until it is stable and able to secure itself, internally and externally. That sends a strong message to Iran to keep its distance.

He should have renounced his previous announcement that U.S. forces will begin withdrawing in July 2011. By restating that deadline Obama encouraged our enemies and discouraged our allies.

Obama mentioned the al Qaeda terror threat in the context of both Iraq and Afghanistan but ignored Iran’s Middle East-wide support for terrorism, the threat that regime poses to oil shipments through the Persian Gulf, and its rapidly advancing atomic weapons program.

Obama’s Oval Office speech scratched his need to celebrate a campaign promise—“bring our combat brigades out of Iraq”—but completely ignored our most pressing problem in the region: Iran. That was a strategic mistake which will drain confidence from our allies and encourage our enemies like the Taliban, al Qaeda, and the mad mullahs in Tehran.