There was no hint of a mission accomplished.
President Obama told the Marines of Camp Lejeune that Iraq was still not secure, that there would be more violence and "difficult days ahead."
He hailed the improvements that were produced by the surge of U.S. forces and the shift in strategy in the war that he had so adamantly opposed. And he outlined how that war would begin to end.
The 18-month timetable for a drawdown of American combat forces and his decision to leave 35,000 to 50,000 troops in Iraq as a "transitional force" reflect his now obvious preference for pragmatic compromise: candidate Obama had pledged a total withdrawal of U.S forces in 16 months; the military had pressed for 23 months; commander-in chief Obama settled on 18.
Like most compromises, this one had no dearth of critics. Ralph Peters and other conservatives attacked what The NY Post called Obama's "phony pullout," accusing him of playing word games to camouflage his decision to keep in place a small army to avoid being blamed for "losing" the war.
Richard Perle, writing in The Guardian, regretted that Obama could not bring himself to credit former President George W. Bush with having, albeit belatedly, switched strategies to make victory possible.
Since Obama had implicitly criticized Bush by saying that Iraq had taught us that America must go to war only with "clearly defined goals" and after having weighed the "costs of action," Perle wrote, could Obama not have added that while those cost have been "horrendous, " "the end of Saddam Hussein's reign of terror was the liberation for which millions of Iraqis hoped, and many thousands died."
Mr. Obama's leftist base was also unhappy. For them, the size of the remaining contingent in Iraq was too large and the withdrawal's pace too slow. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi were openly "disappointed." Reid said he favored leaving 50 troops in Iraq, if not zero.
But President Obama spoke again and again about America's "moral responsibility" to Iraq and to the soldiers who had "endured tour after tour after tour of duty" and the "lonely distance of loved ones." He paid tribute to those who had "bled for your best friends and for unknown Iraqis" and borne an "enormous" and "unique burden" for their fellow citizens, and who had succeeded "beyond any expectation."
While embarking on great change, he spoke of continuity – in the need to lay a foundation for peace and security in Iraq and throughout the region, in the life-and-death struggle to defeat Al Qaeda in Iraq and now in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and in his determination to use "all elements of American power" to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb. The word "responsibility" or variations of it appeared seven times in his speech. For Mr. Obama, who does not use words carelessly, the fixation on that word reflects his awareness of what it means to be commander-in-chief of such a powerful, if troubled nation in such economically disastrous, political perilous times.
While he acknowledged the divisive nature of the war, he praised what the American military had accomplished. "We sent our troops to Iraq to do away with Saddam Hussein's regime – and you got the job done. We kept our troops in Iraq to help establish a sovereign government – and you go the job done," he said. And he called the fact that Iraqis now have a chance to live better lives "an American achievement." The 50,000 U.S. forces there, whatever he calls them, suggests that Obama is loathe to squander that progress and their sacrifice.
The price has been high, he reminded us. He spoke of more than 4,300 "fallen comrades" — among them "Corporal Jonathan Yale, 21, and Lance Corporal Jordan Haerter, 19, both of whom had enlisted in time of war and had trained at Lejeune. They had faced down an explosive-laden suicide truck, saving 50 Marines and Iraqi police who would have been in the vehicle's path. By standing their ground and firing round after round at the truck, they had saved lives by sacrificing their own.
And he spoke of Jordan Haerter's home town which had dedicated a bride in his honor, and of the "quiet places across our land" where the names of the fallen are "written into bridges and town squares," and "etched into the stones of Arlington." I know that town well. On a cold morning this winter, almost half of the residents of Sag Harbor — a former whaling port on Long Island village almost as old as the country itself — lined the road to the bridge that now bears Jordan's name. We stood in the rain as a Marine helicopter hovered a few feet above the center of the bridge, listening to the crack of rifles reverberate through the mist that engulfed the village that day. I joined hundreds of others in a mournful receiving line, groping for words that might console his mother and father for the loss of their only son. "Thank you for your service," residents of Sag Harbor told the Marines he had fought with who had come from all over the country to honor their friend. "We wouldn't be here without him," Obama quoted one of them as saying. Jordan is buried not far from our house. His friends tend to the grave, which is surrounded by American flags and photos of him.
One eloquent critic bemoaned the president's concentration on sacrifice and the suffering of soldiers in his speech, what he called the "very subtle form of the soldier-as-victim trope that is fast becoming an Iraq legacy." The troops in Iraq, wrote Tom Donnelly in the Weekly Standard blog, "should be singled out not just for the burdens of the fight but because they emerge from it, as Bing West's book puts it, as the 'strongest tribe.'" A president should not just mourn a soldier's loss and sacrifice, or even offer to pay him more, as Obama did, but "lead him," Donnelly wrote.
We shall now see where this untried young President chooses to lead. He spoke of his strategy reviews in Iraq and Afghanistan, but his vision of victory there remains unclear. But like so many Americans, I am willing to give him the benefit of so much doubt. I am hoping he will succeed. His decision to announce the drawdown of forces in Iraq at Camp Lejeune while paying tribute to American warriors, to their sacrifices and accomplishments, is the kind of gesture that makes me think my instinct about him is not wrong and my faith not misplaced. And I hope he will come to Sag Harbor one day to cross the Jordan Haerter bridge.