President Obama claims to have kept his campaign promise to cease American combat operations (though not U.S. troop presence) in Iraq by the end of this month. But it's not about his keeping promises about a war and an objective he never supported. It's about whether the mission has been a success. And the answer to that question is: We don't know yet.
It will be fall at the earliest before a minimally functioning Iraqi government is formed. If the government and the country eventually collapse into chaos and terrorists overrun Iraq, effectively nullifying American and coalition efforts there, it will matter little about the president's campaign promise. More important is our promise to the Iraqi people who yearn to breathe free.
In a speech Aug. 2 to the Disabled American Veterans national convention in Atlanta, the president said that a transitional force of 50,000 troops would remain until the end of next year. Will this be enough to send Iraqis the message that they must get their act together and form a less than perfect union, but a union nevertheless? It could go either way, but if the Iraqis fail, the millstone of defeat will be around this president's neck and not that of President Bush, whom Obama continues to blame for almost every problem.
Obama has been wrong in his judgment about Iraq in the past, and that should be kept in mind when judging his decision that now is the time to bring troops home. As a senator, Obama said on "Meet the Press" in 2006: "Given the deteriorating situation, it is clear at this point that we cannot, through putting in more troops or maintaining the presence that we have, expect that somehow the situation is going to improve, and we have to do something significant to break the pattern that we've been in right now."
Bush did something significant. He ordered a troop surge in early 2007. In response to Bush's Jan. 10, 2007, speech on Iraq, Obama declared: "I am not persuaded that 20,000 additional troops in Iraq is going to solve the sectarian violence there. In fact, I think it will do the reverse. . . . I think he is wrong, and I think the American people believe he is wrong."
In fact, Obama and many other congressional Democrats were similarly wrong about the war. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., famously said the war was "lost," and then-Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., said the only solution to Iraq was to carve up the country into separate states. Now Biden credits, not Bush, but himself and Obama with "success." This is political shoplifting.
The public will judge the president's judgment, not his ability to fulfill campaign promises. I suspect most Americans don't want to lose another war and most certainly don't want our soldiers to have died in vain.
Bush was clearly premature in claiming "Mission Accomplished" in 2003. He corrected himself with the surge, and if a completely stable Iraq has not yet been achieved, it is closer than ever. A premature pullout would undermine progress and possibly invite Iran and others to establish another terrorist base in the region. It surely would inspire legions of recruits into terrorist ranks.
There is something else. Obama could do wonders for reducing the polarization virus in Washington, D.C., by crediting Bush for the surge and making another promise — that the United States will not allow Iraq to devolve into chaos with a new set of terrorist dictators who will equal or surpass Saddam Hussein's brutality. The alternative is too terrible to contemplate, for Iraq and for America.