President Obama gave a speech to veterans today on the progress of the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. The speech also addressed the situation in Afghanistan, as well as some more specific veterans' issues; such as Obama's poignant personal plea for soldiers not to hesitate to ask for help with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder:
So today, I want to say in very personal terms to anyone who is struggling -- don't suffer in silence. It's not a sign of weakness to reach out for support -- it's a sign of strength. Your country needs you. We are here for you. We are here to help you stand tall. Don't give up. Reach out.
But in all the media reports I've seen yet on the Iraq withdrawal part of the speech (considered by the media to be the most newsworthy part), very little attention is being paid to how exactly we got where we are today -- President Obama announcing he's meeting an important milestone on the timetable for American military withdrawal from Iraq. So I thought it'd be worth a look back at what preceded today's speech. Because, as I said, the mainstream media so far have fallen down on the job of providing any sort of context or perspective (or, even, "a timeline") to Obama's Iraq withdrawal whatsoever -- or, even worse than omitting things, getting them factually wrong.
The first glaring omission -- by both the president and the media -- is the actual number of troops still currently in Iraq. Obama did not mention this figure, preferring instead to cite where we'd be at the end of this month (from the official White House transcript of Obama's speech):
Already, we have closed or turned over to Iraq hundreds of bases. We're moving out millions of pieces of equipment in one of the largest logistics operations that we've seen in decades. By the end of this month, we'll have brought more than 90,000 of our troops home from Iraq since I took office -- more than 90,000 have come home.
But none of the press reports I've seen so far have bothered to mention how many troops are still currently in Iraq -- which would seem to me to be a rather important fact to omit.
Now, it isn't some big military secret. It's really not all that hard for a journalist to get the official troop level figure. The Pentagon press office is quite friendly and accommodating, and they answer phone calls and emails quicker than just about every other press office I've ever contacted (both corporate and governmental). After I sent a query to the Pentagon today, in an extremely short time (I didn't even mention I was writing about it today, and hence faced a deadline) they emailed back: "There are currently approximately 70,000 troops in Iraq." Now, I realize that this figure changes on a daily basis (especially now, in the midst of a drawdown), so the president's speechwriters may not have wanted to quote a hard number. But it is inexcusable for the media not to provide this information to the public in reporting on Obama's speech, when all it takes is one phone call or email to do so.
I wrote about the troop levels in Iraq a month ago, and how the withdrawal was (at the time) proceeding on schedule. At the end of June, there were 82,000 troops in Iraq. Now, there are 70,000. This means that in the past month, 12,000 troops have left. In the next month, 20,000 more are scheduled to leave. Which sounds to me like everything is indeed proceeding according to schedule, and by the first of September, Obama will be correct in saying "more than 90,000 have come home" since he took office. It also means that we have reached (or surpassed) the halfway point of the withdrawal, since Obama took office with more than 140,000 troops in Iraq.
The second bit of lazy media "reporting" concerns whose Iraq withdrawal schedule this actually is, and when it was announced. For this, we must review the history of the Iraq withdrawal plans in a bit of detail.
On the campaign trail in 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama spoke to a war-weary public about withdrawing from Iraq in a 16-month timeframe, by pulling out one or two brigades per month, beginning right after he took office. He later hedged this a bit, and spoke of a possible residual force left in Iraq after this date, but largely stuck to his 16-month timetable throughout the election season.
John McCain (and many other Republicans) decried any talk of any timetable for withdrawal from Iraq as "waving the white flag of surrender." Timetables were bad, the Republicans all proclaimed in unison, at the time.
Until, of course, President George W. Bush was forced into talking about them by Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki of Iraq. Bush was pressed by a deadline, right before he left office, to formalize a "Status Of Forces Agreement" (or "SOFA") between the two countries, which would spell out the exact rules for American troops to continue to stay in Iraq beyond the end of 2008.
In October of 2008, Maliki pretty much got exactly what he wanted from the Bush administration. As the Washington Post reported at the time:
Disagreement then centered on a timeline for U.S. withdrawal. [Prime Minister] Maliki said that the end of 2010 was a reasonable goal, a public statement that appeared more consistent with the position of Democratic Sen. Barack Obama -- who has called for an even earlier withdrawal -- than that of Republican Sen. John McCain, who has opposed a firm timeline.
During [Secretary of State] Rice's Aug. 21 visit to Baghdad, the two sides agreed on withdrawal of combat forces by the end of 2011. But U.S. officials continue to speak of an "aspirational" date depending on ground conditions, while Maliki said Saturday that the agreement is for "final withdrawal by the end of 2011." Both have said that U.S. combat troops will be drawn back from Iraqi cities by mid-2009.
By the time the SOFA was signed, in December of 2008 (right before the deadline), Barack Obama was President-Elect, and Bush had completely caved. I wrote a two-part article examining the SOFA in detail back then (this excerpt is from Part 2 of this article, but you may wish to read Part 1 as well):
The next section is the bitterest pill George Bush was forced to swallow in the entire agreement. It too is worth reproducing here in full. Here is Article 24 -- "Withdrawal of the United States Forces from Iraq."
Recognizing the performance and increasing capacity of the Iraqi Security Forces, the assumption of full security responsibility by those Forces, and based upon the strong relationship between the Parties, an agreement on the following has been reached:
1. All the United States Forces shall withdraw from all Iraqi territory no later than December 31, 2011.
2. All United States combat forces shall withdraw from Iraqi cities, villages, and localities no later than the time at which Iraqi Security Forces assume full responsibility for security in an Iraqi province, provided that such withdrawal is completed no later than June 30, 2009.
3. United States combat forces withdrawn pursuant to paragraph 2 above shall be stationed in the agreed facilities and areas outside cities, villages, and localities to be designated by the JMOCC before the date established in paragraph 2 above.
4. The United States recognizes the sovereign right of the Government of Iraq to request the departure of the United States Forces from Iraq at any time. The Government of Iraq recognizes the sovereign right of the United States to withdraw the United States Forces from Iraq at any time.
5. The Parties agree to establish mechanisms and arrangements to reduce the number of the United States Forces during the periods of time that have been determined, and they shall agree on the locations where the United States Forces will be present.
A little history of how this was hammered out is relevant here. Bush started from the position "no timetables for withdrawal," which he stuck to as long as he could. Then he tried a Machiavellian way of having his cake and eating it too -- he tried to "fuzzy up" the language, so that he could claim to the American public that there was no timetable in the agreement, while the Iraqis could claim to their public that there was a hard deadline for withdrawal. Perhaps "Orwellian" is a better way to describe this, as it gave rise to the Bush administration's memorable phrase "we have only agreed to aspirational goals for a time horizon," which he really, really hoped would work. It didn't. Not only did the American media actually scoff at such horse manure (asking "what exactly is an 'aspirational goal for a time horizon'?" but the Iraqi public didn't buy it either. Maliki went back to the negotiating table and demanded clear language and a clear timeline for withdrawal. Bush caved. This was about the same time Maliki made friendly comments about Barack Obama's 16-month timetable. So Bush pushed back, and demanded that the timetable end one day before 2012 started (far enough out, he thought, for nobody to notice that it was what Obama was demanding and what Bush adamantly refused to back). But Maliki's countermove was even stronger. Maliki upped the ante, by agreeing to the December 31, 2011 date but changed the stakes to "all U.S. forces out" by that date (previously they had been discussing "combat troops" and not "all U.S. forces"). furthermore, Maliki added in the bit about U.S. forces withdrawing from Iraqi cities in six months, which (again) raised the ante. Bush caved, once again, and this is what Maliki got in the end.
Examining this section in detail, we find that there is nothing here to stop Obama from withdrawing forces earlier than the deadlines. This is a key point many have missed, from the commentary I've read. The right wing has been pretty quiet in general about the SOFA (since they would have to admit that Bush was forced into a timeline after all... which, up until the agreement was announced, they were denouncing as: "waving the white flag of surrender," "telling the terrorists when we are leaving," and other equally nefarious phrases). But the left has somehow misread this section as "Obama's hands are tied, he has to stay until almost 2012!" which is just not true. Paragraph four clearly states that the Iraqis can kick us out any time they want, and we can leave any time we want -- as long as the deadlines are otherwise met.
So, the bargaining began with Obama suggesting 16-month timeline for withdrawal of all American troops (later hedged with unspecified residual force staying after this time). This would have meant all troops would have left around the end of May, 2010. Bush offered Maliki the date of December 31, 2011 for all combat forces to withdraw from Iraq. Maliki countered that the end of 2011 sounded just fine, but that all American forces would be gone by then. Bush reluctantly agreed to this, and to the June, 2009 deadline for American troops to be out of Iraqi cities.
President Obama, about a month after he took office, gave a speech where he outlined his withdrawal plans for Iraq. Now, governing is not campaigning, and Obama had talked to the Pentagon during this month about what the wisest course of action would be (in other words, much to Republicans' surprise, he took into account the "situation on the ground" instead of immediately beginning a "precipitous withdrawal"). Obama then announced that he would meet the two deadlines Bush had agreed to in the SOFA (end of June, 2009 to withdraw from Iraqi cities; end of December, 2011 for all U.S. troops to be gone from Iraq), and furthermore would withdraw all combat troops from Iraq by the end of August, 2010. From a New York Times article written after his speech):
The plan will withdraw most of the 142,000 troops now in Iraq by the summer of next year, leaving 35,000 to 50,000 to train and advise Iraqi security forces, hunt terrorist cells and protect American civilian and military personnel. Those "transitional forces" will leave by 2011 in accordance with a strategic agreement negotiated by President George W. Bush before he left office.
"Let me say this as plainly as I can," Mr. Obama said. "By August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end."
He added: "I intend to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. We will complete this transition to Iraqi responsibility, and we will bring our troops home with the honor that they have earned."
John McCain even begrudgingly approved of Obama's plan, at the time.
The speech Obama gave today confirmed we are still on the schedule he laid out last February. And it confirms that Obama has kept his promise on the withdrawal schedule. American troops did withdraw from Iraqi cities on schedule, last June. And now, we are only 20,000 troops away from meeting the next milestone, when combat operations will cease in Iraq and the remaining 50,000 troops will have a much more tightly-defined mission (mostly training Iraqis).
I have wondered why the White House hasn't been making some political hay over the success of the withdrawal timetable in Iraq. But I now see they wanted to roll this news out when people were actually paying attention. Today's speech was only the first in what is being described as a month-long effort to get some media attention on the good news of American soldiers coming home from Iraq.
Of course, part of this is spin. Obama is trumpeting that he has "kept his promise" on the Iraq withdrawal timetable, likely in the hopes that anti-war critics won't point out that if he had kept his original campaign promise, all American troops would now have left Iraq. The last one (except perhaps a contingent of Marines to guard the U.S. Embassy) would have returned home before June of this year began. But if Bush had had his way, there would be no timeline at all. Even if Bush had gotten his original offer to Maliki, the exact milestone we are approaching -- all American combat troops out of Iraq -- wouldn't have happened until the beginning of 2012. Which puts the withdrawal timetable we are following into some perspective.
To be fair, though, Maliki deserves most of the credit for demanding the hard "total withdrawal" date at the end of next year -- the next milestone on the withdrawal timetable. And George Bush was the one who actually (very reluctantly, to be sure) signed the United States up for this milestone.
But these are minor quibbles. Because most media reports will likely ignore all of this context, and focus instead on what Obama said after he actually became president (in his February, 2009 speech). And Barack Obama does indeed deserve credit for meeting his self-imposed schedule, and being on track to hit the next milestone at the end of this month. Frankly, it is hard to imagine John McCain being so aggressive on a troop withdrawal, had he now been in Obama's shoes. Obama threw down a solid marker last February, and it looks like he is on track to meet his goal on time.
Our two wars have switched, in terms of media attention, from the 2008 campaign. These days, lots of Afghanistan stories are in the news. Virtually no Iraq stories are. Back then, it was the opposite. The Obama White House has every reason to trumpet the good news from Iraq even during a bad news season from Afghanistan. Withdrawing from Iraq was a major issue for voters in 2008, so Obama deserves a lot of credit for where we are today on this front. Of course, all the brave American troops deserve the lion's share of credit. But politically for Obama, good news from Iraq can indeed act as a counterweight to bad news in Afghanistan, and the president is right to spotlight it for the voters heading into the midterm elections, to remind us all where we were a few years ago, and where we are now. Because hearing today's news without that context does a disservice to the accomplishment itself.
[Program Note: I was going to also write about Obama's strong record of supporting the troops with veterans' issues here today as well, but this ran way too long as it was. I encourage everyone interested in the problems our veterans face after they return to read Obama's speech in its entirety to see his impressive achievements on the issue, and what great strides this administration has taken on the behalf of our nation's veterans. This is exactly what "supporting the troops" looks like, and Democrats should indeed be proud of this record. Also, for regular readers, we apologize for not presenting our monthly "Obama Poll Watch" column here today as scheduled, as there were minor problems with the graphs. The OPW column will appear here Wednesday, instead.]
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