With Troops Out of Iraq, Obama to Shift Focus to Economy

Congressional Black Caucus expresses praise, caution for the end of the combat mission

Rep. Keith Ellison believes the U.S. still needs to lend political and diplomatic support to Iraq.

In a prime-time address from the Oval Office Tuesday night, President Obama officially declared an end to the United States’ combat mission in Iraq. The president praised the troops who’ve fought and have been injured or lost their lives during the seven-year war, but made clear his desire to shift greater focus and resources on solving this nation’s problems, in particular the ongoing weak economy. He also reiterated his intention to begin pulling back from Afghanistan next year.

“I know this historic moment comes at a time of great uncertainty for many Americans. We have now been through nearly a decade of war. We have endured a long and painful recession,” Obama said. “And sometimes in the midst of these storms, the future that we are trying to build for our nation—a future of lasting peace and long-term prosperity may seem beyond our reach.”

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus expressed both praise for the end of the combat mission and caution. CBC chairwoman Barbara Lee (D-California) said that she would work to ensure that no permanent bases are built or maintained in Iraq and that the U.S. honors the withdrawal timetable.

“The U.S. needs to continue to lend political and diplomatic support to Iraq. They need it and they’re still hashing out political conflicts there, which is natural in an emerging democracy. We also should help with reconstruction,” said Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. But, he warned, Congress has to be more vigilant.

“We should remember the lessons of how we got into Iraq and always ask questions. And we can never again allow ourselves to be pushed into war for fear of being called unpatriotic or cowards,” Ellison said.

San Francisco State University political scientist Robert Smith said that one of Obama’s primary motivations for delivering the speech was to point out to the American public that he’d kept his campaign promise to end the combat mission, the high cost of war and the need to invest those resources in the U.S. economy. The president also wanted to send a message to his party’s large antiwar constituency that he intends to keep the same promise regarding Afghanistan and withdraw from there as planned, despite comments to the contrary by people such as General David Petraus, that that deadline may be flexible.

“Obama will stand by the deadline because if anything can threaten his support among liberals and African Americans it’s a prolonged bloody war in Afghanistan. It’s as big a threat to him as the economy, so I think he’ll move out as soon as possible,” Smith said.

Unlike his predecessors, former presidents George W. and George H.W. Bush, Smith added, “Obama’s has always been far more interested in domestic issues and the two wars have been a distraction he’s been forced to deal with.”

During his remarks Obama also was forced to walk an awkwardly fine line between support for the troops who’ve fought the war at considerable sacrifice and the fact that he always opposed the war in Iraq from the very beginning. In addition, he also was obliged to acknowledge his immediate predecessor’s “support for our troops or his love of country and commitment to our security” to offset charges from the political right that it was Bush’s troop surge, which Obama opposed, that helped create a more stable Iraq.

One thing he didn’t do, however, is declare “mission accomplished” or any other sort of victory, and rightly so, said Smith.

“I don’t think we ever had any real prospect of bringing democracy to Iraq. It takes a long time for democracies develop and there has to be a culture for it, not just elections and procedures,” Smith said, “Democracy there may be decades ahead and this war will have little to do with it.”

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