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Ilan Goldenberg

Ilan Goldenberg

Posted March 2, 2009 | 12:27 PM (EST)

What Obama's Iraq Speech Means for American Foreign Policy


President Obama's speech on Iraq was the culmination of something that many of us had been working towards for years.  But it was more than just the beginning of the end of the war.  It was also the clearest signal yet of what an Obama administration's foreign policy will look like, what its goals and organizing principles may be, and how this President can use his unique skills to reshape America's position in the world.

First, the speech demonstrates that on issues of foreign policy, communication is vital. Obama's exceptional skills aren't just an asset during a presidential campaign or a domestic policy fight, but they matter when he speaks to the world.  The President had a tough speech to give.  He had to clearly communicate to the Iraqis that we were in fact leaving, while reassuring them that we would not abandon them.  He had to send a message to the Muslim World and to America's allies that our Iraq-centric foreign policy is over.  He had to reassure the military and its commanders that he appreciates their sacrifices and that he won't casually endanger the progress that has been made in Iraq over the past year and a half.  And he had to communicate to the American public that he was keeping his promise to end the war.  He managed to do all of these things and do them brilliantly.  Obama's communication skills are another powerful tool in the toolbox of American foreign policy.  I'm looking forward to seeing how he uses them in his upcoming speech to the Islamic World or in his attempt to gain broader support from our European allies around Afghanistan.

The new policy also marks the end of America's Iraq-centric foreign policy and the return to strategic balance.  For years President Bush focused exclusively on Iraq to the detriment of all our other foreign policy interests.  As the man who started the war, he became so vested in its outcome that he lost all sense of other priorities. Bush dealt directly with General Petraeus and his commanders on the ground in Iraq, rather than following the normal chain of command and consulting with all his advisors to think about broader strategic interests. Compare this to Obama's process described by Secretary Gates:

I think that there was a lot of analysis of the risks that were involved.  I think that if the commanders had had complete say in this matter that, that they would have preferred that, that the combat mission not end until the end of 2010.  And so having a somewhat larger residual or transition force mitigates the risk of having the combat units go out sooner... So it was really a dialogue between the commanders in the field, the Joint Chiefs here, myself, the chairman and the president in terms of how, how you mitigate risk and how you structure this going forward.


This is how things should be and how they will be going forward.  It's not all about Iraq.  It is about America's interests around the globe and the costs and benefits of pursuing different strategies.

Obama's Iraq plans are also a perfect example of the comprehensive foreign policy approach that he, Secretary Clinton and Secretary Gates have all been advocating.  Rather than focusing solely on the military aspect, the President laid out a three part plan that also focus on issues of political reconciliation and diplomatic engagement with Iraq's neighbors.  In fact, now that the military and force posture is complete, the administration will be conducting two additional reviews.  The first will examine what role the United States can play in helping facilitate political reconciliation on the tough outstanding issues such as Kurd-Arab tensions in the disputed territories, the division of oil revenues and the question of the displaced.  The second review will develop a comprehensive diplomatic strategy for how to engage Iraq's neighbors and the international community in playing a constructive role inside the country.

Furthermore, Obama's speech marks the end of the ideological democracy promotion policy of George W. Bush.  President Bush, as late as last March, continued to speak of American goals in Iraq in grandiose terms:

And we have another advantage in our strong belief in the transformative power of liberty...So we're helping the people of Iraq establish a democracy in the heart of the Middle East. A free Iraq will fight terrorists instead of harboring them. A free Iraq will be an example for others of the power of liberty to change the societies and to displace despair with hope. By spreading the hope of liberty in the Middle East, we will help free societies take root -- and when they do, freedom will yield the peace that we all desire.


Obama's approach is much more moderate.  He begins:

This strategy is grounded in a clear and achievable goal shared by the Iraqi people and the American people: an Iraq that is sovereign, stable, and self-reliant.


He then goes on to explain that:

To achieve that goal, we will work to promote an Iraqi government that is just, representative, and accountable, and that provides neither support nor safe-haven to terrorists. We will help Iraq build new ties of trade and commerce with the world. And we will forge a partnership with the people and government of Iraq that contributes to the peace and security of the region.


The shift is subtle but clear.  To Bush, democracy is an end onto itself and the most effective way to fight terrorism.  In Obama's view, elements of liberal democracy including accountability, justice and representation are a means to an ultimate end of stability and the pursuit of American national interests.  This doesn't mean giving up on the democracy promotion agenda.  It just means being more thoughtful and strategic about it.  It's also noteworthy that Obama doesn't actually commit to a just, representative or accountable Iraqi government.  Instead, he states that "we will work to promote" one.  This is a significant reduction in America's commitment to a much more realistic goal.

Finally, Obama's speech set a constructive tone for how the country talks about the lessons of Iraq going forward.  In what was perhaps the most important part of the speech he said:

There are many lessons to be learned from what we've experienced. We have learned that America must go to war with clearly defined goals, which is why I've ordered a review of our policy in Afghanistan. We have learned that we must always weigh the costs of action, and communicate those costs candidly to the American people, which is why I've put Iraq and Afghanistan into my budget. We have learned that in the 21st century, we must use all elements of American power to achieve our objectives, which is why I am committed to building our civilian national security capacity so that the burden is not continually pushed on to our military. We have learned that our political leaders must pursue the broad and bipartisan support that our national security policies depend upon, which is why I will consult with Congress and in carrying out my plans. And we have learned the importance of working closely with friends and allies, which is why we are launching a new era of engagement in the world.


Spencer Ackerman sums up the importance of this statement.

His lessons are sensible. They reflect what the war was and why it was a folly. They're neither truisms nor evasions. They blend well with progressive critiques of the war but they won't grate in conservative ears. Call it truth and reconciliation, a face-saving way out of the mire of not just Iraq, but the discourse of Iraq. "I don't just want to end the war," Obama said on Jan. 31, 2008, "but I want to end the mind-set that got us into war in the first place." I've always considered that to be the most important thing he's ever said about the war.


In the end, this speech was about much more than just Iraq.  It was about how a new President, through his remarkable communication skills, can shape the way America is viewed by the world.  It was about a new and more balanced assessment of the threats we face.  It was about using all of the various tools in the toolbox to pursue American national interests.  It was about properly defining American foreign policy goals and recognizing that while democracy promotion should be an element of our foreign policy, it cannot be the basis of our foreign policy.  And finally, it was about learning the right lessons from the war  and applying those to our foreign policy.   In short, it was about turning the page to a new era in American foreign policy.