15 Minutes: What the President Will Say Tonight

President Obama has asked the television networks for 15 minutes tonight, and he's going to pack quite a bit of messaging into that short period of time. Why do we need a speech marking the end of the combat mission in Iraq? It's because we're going to need, according to Obama, to understand the future of the war in Afghanistan and the interconnectedness of foreign and domestic policy in a way that reflects what Obama was able to do in Iraq.  

What did he do? He set a time-frame and stuck to it. Iraq will now begin to fend for itself. He promised during his presidential campaign that he would end the Iraq war "responsibly." He will note tonight that his administration managed to withdraw 100,000 troops from Iraq "responsibly." He will portray this as a major milestone in his presidency.

We forget how integral Sen. Barack Obama's decision to oppose the Iraq war was to his own political awakening, and how many contortions Hillary Clinton had to untwist in order to justify her own support for the war authority, and how, by the day of the general election, given the success of the surge (or the success of JSOC's counterterrorism efforts), Iraq was no longer a central voting issue. Voters seemed to exorcise that demon in 2006, when they voted Democrats into Congress.

A large chunk of the speech will be taken up by the president's careful description of the sacrifices that a million U.S. soldiers and diplomats have made by their service in Iraq, and how 4,400 Americans did not come home.

Then, a pivot point: the Iraq drawdown has allowed the president to refocus attention on the threat from Al Qaeda worldwide, and he will mention that the terrorist network is degraded, albeit still capable of waging terrorist attacks and intending to do so.

He will note that the government will be able to reap a bit of a post-Iraq transition dividend, allowing the administration to invest more in job creation, health care, and education here at home. (Subtly, the point: Obama wouldn't have gone into Iraq, so we wouldn't have had to spend as much as we did.) It's time, he will say, to build our own nation.

There will not be a granular comparison between Iraq and Afghanistan, but Oval Office speeches are rare opportunities for presidents to compel attention, and he will not waste the occasion to lay a marker about expectations in Afghanistan, a war with which Americans have grown increasingly weary. The glide path in Afghanistan will clearly be different, but the president hopes the analogy sticks: he can manage wars, and what he did in Iraq he can do in Afghanistan.

Now then: will he take the bait dangling from Republican hooks and give President Bush credit for the surge? He will telephone President Bush earlier in the day, presumably to thank the president for his judgment in a way that does not acknowledge that his own opposition to the surge was (in retrospect) incorrect. Officials make the argument that people read a lot into the surge, and that a number of different factors, some of them independent of the surge, contributed to the taming of the insurgency. Obama won't get into those arguments there, but it will be interesting to see how he deals with the historical narrative that has President Bush mistakenly choosing to go to war in Iraq and then supporting a strategy that brought about its close more quickly.

Presented by

Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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