There's some confusion about how the president is "ending" combat operations in Iraq if there are still U.S. combat troops in Iraq. His speech on Tuesday outlined his argument that the withdrawal of combat brigades is a significant milestone in the past twenty years of US military involvement in Iraq. His speech actually reflects a very sophisticated statement that is aimed not just his Democratic base that has pushed for the end of combat operations in Iraq, but also his Republican opponents who are looking for opportunities to score points before the November elections.
This was my pledge to the American people as a candidate for this office. Last February, I announced a plan that would bring our combat brigades out of Iraq, while redoubling our efforts to strengthen Iraq’s Security Forces and support its government and people.
That’s what we’ve done. 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 Iraqi responsibility for their own security. U.S. troops pulled out of Iraq’s cities last summer, and Iraqi forces have moved into the lead with considerable skill and commitment to their fellow citizens. Even as Iraq continues to suffer terrorist attacks, security incidents have been near the lowest on record since the war began. And Iraqi forces have taken the fight to al Qaeda, removing much of its leadership in Iraqi-led operations.
Now yes, there are still 50,000 American troops in Iraq formed in something they call "Advisory and Assistance Brigades." These brigades are supposed to be primarily involved in training Iraqi security troops, not leading combat operations. That doesn't mean that they won't be shot at or can't shoot back. There are "combat troops" in South Korea and Germany, and yet we aren't in combat there, so I'm willing to give the president some room here. And then there's the billions of dollars that Iraq's government is going to spend on American military gear. That's a really bad idea, as it will only increase Iraq's dependency on American military involvement. So are we disengaging from Iraq's internal affairs? Hardly.
But back to the speech. Again, some will argue that it is disingenuous because US troops are still there, but Obama has actually set the precedent for pulling US troops out of Afghanistan next summer by making the case that the US military role is to create some security (in both countries), build up the indigenous security forces, and then get the hell out. He has to demonstrate that he's keeping his campaign promises prior to the mid-term elections and that he is going to (eventually) get us out of Afghanistan before the 2012 election. At the same time, he isn't willing to give the Repubs any room in this dialogue to declare that the Dems are weak willies and traitors to the American Dream by running from a fight (yes, it's a false argument, but perceptions matter to the American public, especially the fence-sitters).
At the same time, Obama is directing attention to the need to move funds from military operations back to domestic priorities. This will cause others to claim Obama is using the war for political posturing, but they miss the point. War is an extension of politics, and it's certainly a responsible and mature view to place limits on military actions (and funding) when there are so many other domestic demands that require attention. At the least, he demonstrates the need to examine all federal funding in an attempt to rein in the deficit and restart the US economy. It's a tricky position, and Obama's careful navigation down the middle doesn't please many people, but it's just crazy enough to work.