Though the headlines from the President's speech mostly focused on his promise to end all U.S. combat operations in Iraq by August 31, 2010 -- and withdraw U.S. forces fully by the end of the following year -- there was considerably more to it than that. For starters, Mr. Obama again acknowledged that our forces in Iraq had "succeeded beyond any expectation," not least his own.
Mr. Obama was also rightly generous in his praise of outgoing U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Generals David Petraeus and Ray Odierno, "two of our finest generals." All three men were Bush appointees, and all were instrumental in devising, advocating and implementing the surge strategy that Mr. Bush pursued amid the derision of his critics, including then-Senator Obama.
President Obama also recognized that Iraqis themselves have made significant political progress, and that "there is renewed cause for hope in Iraq." That's a far cry from his message of last July, when he told reporters, after visiting Iraq, that "So far, I think we have not seen the kind of political reconciliation that's going to bring about long-term stability in Iraq."
But more important than Mr. Obama's implicit repudiation of his own positions as a candidate (and the implicit vindication of Mr. Bush's position, to say nothing of John McCain's) is his decision to maintain a sizable U.S. military presence in Iraq -- in the range of 35,000 to 50,000 troops -- past the August 2010 "withdrawal" date. That "transitional force" is roughly the size of the U.S. military presence in South Korea through the Cold War. And its mission, involving training of Iraqi forces, U.S. force protection and "targeted counterterrorism missions," largely describes what the U.S. is already doing in Iraq.
Most of Iraq's provinces are under full Iraqi security control, and U.S. forces will be out of all Iraqi cities and towns by this July, as stipulated in the Status of Forces Agreement that the Bush Administration concluded with the Iraqi government last year. By making it clear a sizable U.S. force will remain in Iraq, Mr. Obama is showing a commitment to Iraq's continued democratic progress and should help deter a revival of ethnic tensions. He's also making clear the strategic advantage of having a stable U.S. ally in the heart of the Persian Gulf.
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