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An unadorned speech, but not one lacking in strategy

Mark Mardell | 02:01 UK time, Wednesday, 1 September 2010

President Barack Obama announced the end of the end of the Iraq war without much fanfare or fuss. Rhetorical flourishes might have been out of place in any case, but this was unadorned with soaring words though not lacking in strategy.

It was the second time he has made such an address to the American people from the Oval Office. Behind the obvious headlines what messages did he pack into his 18 minutes of prime time?

He lavished praise on the troops. He was in "awe" of the sacrifice of these "brave Americans", their families bore a "heroic burden", and they are "the steel in our ship of state." He promised the veterans would not be forgotten. This is the sort of stuff that makes America feel good about itself. It is vital for Mr Obama to counter the charges of the right that he doesn't value the military and he won't do himself any harm by laying it on with a trowel.

Neither Afghanistan nor Iraq were wars without end. Not only was combat in Iraq over, all US troops would leave at the end of next year. In Afghanistan the "transition" would begin next July. The pace would be determined by conditions on the ground but it would happen because "open-ended war serves neither our interests nor the Afghan people".

In part this is a message to his own supporters that he is not going to be cowed by the generals and at some point he will be in a position to say the Afghan war is over too. But it is also a message to American people as a whole, who are tired of war.

He said that he had telephoned President Bush before the speech. He had no words of praise for the surge. It was no secret that they disagreed about the war, "yet no one could doubt President Bush's support for our troops, or his love of country and commitment to our security."

Slightly cheeky this. It prompts questions about whose policies really threatened and damaged America. But he is making the point that it can be patriotic to oppose wars as well as to support them. It is a message to right wing republicans that liberals should not have to put up with accusations of being un-American for thinking differently about the world.

The US intends to sustain and strengthen its leadership of the world. But this could not only be through military action alone. It was through economic strength, example and hopes. That was as close as Mr Obama came to articulating some sort of foreign policy doctrine, but for most of the world it is more like platitude than philosophy.

The wars have strained America. Strength and influence abroad are based in prosperity at home and the US had spent more than $1 trillion on war, which has "short changed" investment in America. Two-fifths of his speech was spent promising to revitalise the America economy, and this he would make his central responsibility and mission.

The White House is constantly trying to turn the media's attention to the economy. It is where most Americans want him to focus. This is his most important message. If he can not turn it in to reality then things will get very sticky on the home front.


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