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How will Obama mark end of Iraq war?

Mark Mardell | 17:05 UK time, Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Ending the Iraq war is no small accomplishment.

Yet it is another achievement for which President Obama will probably get little credit.
There would be much criticism if he had failed to achieve this campaign promise, but it had been obvious for a while this moment would come.

Both voters and the media tend to ungratefully pocket predictable triumphs, without so much as a "thank you".

In his address from a newly redecorated Oval Office, on his second such address to the American people, he will not attempt to rehash the arguments for and against the war.

But he will say instead that there were patriots on both sides of the argument.

That's a rebuke to those on the right who automatically characterise opposition to any particular war as unpatriotic.

He will, largely for Iraqi consumption, stress that the withdrawal of troops is not the end of engagement with Iraq.

Mr Obama will also emphasize that political, diplomatic and cultural efforts will be ramped up, and that the American effort is changing from military to civilian leadership.

He most definitely will not utter George W Bush's famously premature words "mission accomplished".

Obama will also have a much wider message about the United States mission in the world and will suggest that there will now be an increase in the tempo of the fight against Al Queda.

He is announcing the end of a war that changed the way much of the world saw America.

It's also a war that hasn't really touched the way America sees itself.

But where does this divisive war leave America?

For George W Bush it was unfinished business, which in its execution amply demonstrated why his father and Mrs Thatcher decided against finishing the job.

And for many in the Bush administration Saddam Hussein was the preferred target after 9/11, even though it was obvious he had nothing to with it.

But 9/11 provided the rationale for attack, the dire prediction that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and the fear they could find their way into the hands of terrorists.

It was at best a symbol for a fear that Saddam Hussein was flouting the will of the west and was still determined to challenge American dominance in the region through military power.

At first, despite dire warnings from many in the rest of the world and the gaping fissure in the western alliance, victory seemed quick and easy - the enemy shocked and awed out of power.

But even allies like Britain were puzzled by the lack of planning and the lack of thought about what happened next - driven apparently by a neo-con ideology that preached that once the basic military job was done there would be no need for prolonged heavy presence by the USA.

The belief was that delighted Iraqi's would take over the reins, turning their country into a beacon of democracy and capitalism for the rest of the Middle East.

It was the stubborn refusal of the citizens of a foreign country to rise up and play their allotted parts that undid America in Vietnam and Cuba, too.

As Iraq descended into civil war, a battle between ethnic factions Bush senior and Mrs Thatcher had foreseen, the American public grew ever more hostile toward the conflict that was costing so many lives and so much money.

George W Bush reversed the theory of the neo-cons light footprint and ordered a surge of troops that reduced civil war to insurrection and insurrection to terrorism. Elections have been held, and if the results are muddled they are no more so than in many other democracies.

What the second Iraq war has in common with the first Iraq war, with Vietnam and the end of the Cold War is that although it provoked profound rethinking of how the United States military should operate, it has not provoked similar questions about why and when it should operate.

Tactics are constantly under review in Washington but strategy rarely.

Obama's first challenge in the speech is how much he boasts of progress, against what I would guess would be his personal instincts.

That is pretty close to endorsing the original neo-con argument for war.

He has to decide how boldly he will outline an Obama doctrine.

His most obvious policy change from Bush is to seek out allies even before alliances are formally needed for a task, which his enemies portray as towing to the rest of the world.

If he emphasizes his belief in international partnership, he may also choose to tacitly endorse the firm belief of many Americans that they have a God given duty to lead the world.

His emphasis matters hugely.

There are parallels with the wind down of operations in Afghanistan.

But much more importantly the regimes in Iran and North Korea pose a similar challenge to America and its allies, as did Saddam Hussein.

The Iraq war has reduced America's ability and appetite to respond in a similar manner, for which some will be thankful.

But Obama is unlikely to remove the military threat from the equation.

He must know he is likely to get little political credit for the birth of "Operation Dawn", but he would have had plenty of blame heaped upon him if he hadn't reached this point.

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