The End of Combat Operations in Iraq? How a "Peace President" Packages the Continuation of an Occupation to Make Us Feel Better About It
My overall impression is there is little question the president is spinning this “end of combat operations” in Iraq because the Afghanistan war is going badly. A few other thoughts and reactions to the president’s speech:
The president rightly paid tribute to the troops that have served in Iraq, and announced a large increase in veterans’ benefits. Will this be sustained? I don’t think anyone has a realistic estimate of the cost of providing decades and decades of physical and psychological medical care to the veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
President Obama praised the resilience of the Iraqi people, but similarly, will the U.S. really support them and make good on our debt to them, which dates back to the end of the first Iraq war in 1991 (or some would argue all the way back to the Iran-Iraq war in 1979)? Continued support, probably for the long-term, for Iraqi-led (not foreign oil company-enriching) economic development and refugee resettlement will be needed, likely in the tens of billions of dollars, in a time of a global economic crisis and tight budgets.
Iraq is still a mess. Deadly acts of violence are still a daily reality, as are a lack of reliable electricity, working sewers and clean water supplies. A working government hasn’t been formed five months after the election, and the president’s encouragement for the formation of a government sounded plaintive and powerless.
On the issue of our ongoing military presence, the 50,000 US troops remaining in Iraq are still “combat” forces able to train Iraqi forces but also to intervene with lethal force on “counter-terrorist operations” or other combat missions when called upon. And of course thousands of mercenary contractors remain, and State Department Security contractors are expected to double from 3,500 to 7,000.
And of course the real deadline that matters is the end of next year, when all US troops, contractors and bases are to be withdrawn. Peace activists, Members of Congress and the media – as well as the Iraqi people – will need to be vigilant to ensure that is a firm deadline, as there have already been military brass and diplomats agitating for an enduring occupation based on “security concerns.” There undoubtedly will be ongoing security concerns in Iraq (as the president admitted), even if political stability and strengthened police and military forces are achieved. The real issue is reinstituting Iraqi sovereignty, which is of course impossible while the US occupation, even if it is under a different name, continues.
This is all adds up to what appears to be a cynical “re-packaging” of a smaller but still significant occupation of Iraq for an Administration that is scrambling with low approval ratings and uncertain political prospects in the mid-term elections and beyond.
Naturally, the president pivoted to “the fight against al Qaeda” in the “Afghanistan-Pakistan border region” and emphasized his planned transition in Afghanistan, beginning with a partial withdrawal of US military forces next July (remember the president escalated the occupation by sending over 50,000 more troops to Afghanistan since he took office). This was clearly a tacit admission that support for the president’s escalation of the war in Afghanistan is losing public, media and Congressional support.
The president stated that open-ended war serves neither our interests nor that of Afghans – right! – so when are we getting out? Beginning withdrawal (of an unspecified number of troops) next summer is not good enough. The president needs to announce, by the end of the year at the latest, a plan and timeline for a complete end to the US occupation and war in Afghanistan.
According to the president, a new push for Middle East peace begins tomorrow with talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders at the White House. Continued one-sided, blank check support for Israel does not inspire confidence in the U.S. as an “honest broker” for peace, however personally committed the president may be.
As the president noted, spending over a trillion dollars for war over the last decade has resulted in rising deficits that have undermined our long-term economic competitiveness. He went on to say our most urgent tasks are to restore our economy, create jobs, improve education and lessen dependence on foreign oil.
Agreed on all of that, but the president has increased military spending since he took office and appears to have no political courage to really re-order our country’s spending priorities away from war and militarism and toward human and environmental needs. Despite the hopes many peace activists had for this president, the military-industrial complex has little to fear from him or his administration.
Prosperity at home was a big focus for Obama, and it is for us too! The October 2 One Nation Working Together mobilization in Washington, DC will link war and peace issues to the need to reinvest in human needs and economic justice here at home. Also actions on the 9th anniversary of the war in Afghanistan around October 7 (the period of October 7 – 10 has been called as Global Days of Action to End the War in Afghanistan, with decentralized, local actions planned around the country).
The mid-term elections are also an important opportunity to hold House and Senate candidates’ feet to the fire on peace issues – fully withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan while supporting the rebuilding of those societies, brokering a just peace in the Middle East, and dramatically cutting military spending in order to invest in human needs.
My dominant impression in listening to President Obama tonight is that he is honest about some (certainly not all) of the problems we as a country face, but he lacks either the imagination or the political will to name the real solutions. So that’s up to us. As the old adage days, “when the people lead, the leaders will follow” and we the people will have ample opportunities to lead in the months ahead.