Obama speech on Iraq: Analysis with Dan Balz

Aug 31, 2010

National political reporter Dan Balz will be online Tuesday, Aug. 31, at 8:30 p.m. ET to discuss and analyze President Obama's Oval Office speech on Iraq.

Hello and welcome to everyone out there.

President Obama has just finished his second Oval Office speech, announcing that the United States has ended its combat mission in Iraq.

Now we'd like to hear from you about what you thought. Did the president say what you expected, or wanted, to hear? Has the war to date been worth it? Will we really be out of Iraq completely in another year? Was it important for Obama to make good on his promise in 2008 to end the war? Who was most responsible for making it possible to bring the combat trooops home? How confident are you about the situation in Afghanistan? Do you think President Obama has set the right course there?

Let's get to your questions and keep them coming.

Thanks for joining the discussion.

Dan Balz.

Do you think giving the speech today was appropriate, given that Iraq is hardly safe and our work there is not done? On the other hand, would the president have been criticized for not properly marking the occassion if he didn't give an Oval Office address?

Because this was the day that formally ended the combat mission in Iraq, it was entirely appropriate for the president to deliver a statement to the American people.  You're certainly right that this is not the end to a U.S. commitment to Iraq, as he also made clear. There is still the potential for much violence. Just as worrying is the continuing inability of the political leaders there to form a government. Until that happens, and it takes hold, that will be a problem that will require presidential attention and the attention of others in his administration.


What was the White House hoping to achieve with tonight's address, and do you think they accomplished it?

I think the president had several objectives tonight. One was to pay tribute to the servicemen and women who have fought and died in Iraq since 2003. As combat operations end, that was an important message from the president.

He also wanted to make clear to the people who backed him in 2008 that he has kept one big promise, which was to end the war. As the previous questioner noted, this is not over in Iraq but the United States role has moved to a different phase. President Obama needs the antiwar voters who supported him to feel good about his presidency and come out and vote for Democrats this November.

He also clearly wanted to remind people that we are still at war in Afghanistan and, as he stated, that he will seek not to let that commitment become open-ended. That's a big question mark and something that will become increasingly important as we move into 2011.

What may have surprised people is the amount of the speech devoted to the economy. The president is under pressure from Democrats to stay focused on the economy. A number of Democrats wondered why he felt the need to deliver a prime time address about Iraq. He answered that tonight by spending considerable time on the economy and making clear that will remain, as he put it, "my central responsibility as president."


How do you think that call went? I imagine President Obama was a little more sympathetic than he might have been in 2008.

We would all like to know the answer to that. They certainly shared almost no common ground on Iraq. Obama opposed the war before it was launched. He strongly opposed the surge when Bush announced in in early 2007. He wanted to set a timetable for withdrawal that would have had the United States out of Iraq long ago.

But he now shares with Bush the understanding of what the burdens of the presidency mean. That bond is important and no doubt provides some sense of commonality between the two.

Still it is hard to imagine it was an easy or jovial call. The president made clear his disagreement with the former president over Iraq. Many Republicans have been calling on President Obama to acknowledge that Bush was right about the surge. He certainly did not do that tonight. White House officials have suggested that is all in the past.

Obama's comments about his predecessor seemed an effort to help heal the divisions over Iraq, which would be good for the country. But that will not be easy. Vietnam's divisions lasted decades.

Back to  your question, I only hope we someday get a fuller readout on that call.


What's next for the U.S. there? When do we leave for good?

As the president said tonight, the United States will continue to have about 50,000 troops in Iraq, acting as a backup force to the Iraqi security forces. By prior agreement, all U.S. troops are supposed to leave Iraq in a year. There has been speculation as this deadline neared that the Iraqi government might ask for U.S. troops to stay longer, if they are still dealing with bombings and violence in a year. The president seemed to rule that out tonight. We shall see. But even after that, as he said, the United States will remain engaged diplomatically and by providing aid and assistance to the Iraqis as they continue to rebuild.


How do you think the address will play with the talking heads?

Always hard to predict how the talking heads will react. I heard a couple of them say they did not think the speech held together as well as they think some of his other speeches did. Others said they thought it was a good speech. But the president's audience tonight was the public, a public that is in a pretty unhappy mood because of the economy and other problems and that will be delivering a two-year verdict on his presidency in two months.


Why do you think the President chose to make this speech from the Oval Office instead of at Fort Bliss?

Presidents generally deliver speeches like this from the Oval Office. It conveys seriouness and significance.  To do it in front of troops could have created an awkward backdrop. This was not a speech in which you would have wanted cheering soldiers in the background. On the other hand, to deliver this with a backdrop of soldiers sitting at partial attention would have been equally awkward. I think the reason he flew to Ft. Bliss today was, rightly, to say thank you in person to those who sacrificed most. But the Oval Office provided a more comfortable setting for the multiple messages he delivered tonight.

Incidentally, President Bush's advisers believed he often appeared awkward speaking from the Oval Office. They tried to find other settings, often in front of people, to give him more energy and make him appear more natural and relaxed.


What lessons from winding down in Iraq do you think the administraion will carry over to the conflict in Afghanistan?

That's a really good question. During his presidential campaign, Obama used Afghanistan as a way to show that, while he opposed the war in Iraq, he was not, as he once said, opposed to all war. He called Iraq a distraction from the real central front of the war against terror, Afghanistan. He was firm in his belief that Afghanistan would require a renewed commitment by the United States and pledged to do so, while bringing the war in Iraq to an end.

He has made good on that promise, perhaps even more than he imagined. Peter Baker had a very good piece in Sunday's New York Times in which he quoted Secretary of Defense Robert Gates as saying that he and the president thought their initial decision in the spring of 2009 to add troops in Afghanistan probably would be enough. They were both surprised when Gen. McChrystal came back with a request for 40,000 more a few months later.

So President Obama has escalated probably beyond his expectations, and he knows there is limited patience, especially in his Democratic base, for long commitment at these troop levels in Afghanistan. When he talked about Afghanistan tonight, he spent as much time emphasizing that he opposes an open-ended commitment as he did about the stakes involved in the U.S. mission there.


I've been a voter since Vietnam; I'm a draftee/Veteran. These speeches, regardless of who gives them, when, or why: sound like exercises in shoulder shrugging, blame shifting, foot shuffling, finger pointing.

They almost never explain unless telling Americans how dumb they are and why the folks inside the Beltway know better. Would that were even remotely so. Thanks much.

Thanks. Appreciate your candor. Your sense of frustration is no doubt shared by others. Wars are obviously terrible and especially when the country is as divided as it was during Vietnam and was through much of the Iraq conflict. Political leaders pay a steep price for those divisions, as Bush learned and, I suspect, Obama fears.


As an Obama supporter, I get confused by the dynamic of speeches like this. There is a big build-up that the speech "really matters" sort of like a presidential debate, and can be "won" or "lost."

But then it's over, and well, it's just over. There is no way of knowing if it was successful or a failure, because the pundits on both sides say what their side believes anyway.

Is there some measure I can look to to see if this was a success or a failure? Are there polls in the field? A rough consensus (perhaps already forming)? Focus groups? Or is it all just a big anti-climax where the speech is over and we go back to the status quo?

It is hard in the moments after a speech like this to get a clear reading. My guess is that this will not materially change opinions. Partisans on both sides are pretty well dug in on these and other questions. Iraq does not loom large right now in the national debate, certainly not as it was in the past. Most people are worried about other things. As the violence lessened, attention shifted to other areas. There was no surprise here. The end of the U.S. combat role was well-telegraphed and set in concrete, so it's not likely there will be a big move in the polls. I think the fact that the president devoted as much time as he did to the economy tells you what White House advisers think the American people are really worried about.

It's a relief to have most of the troops out of harm's way in Iraq, but we'll obviously be engaged there for a long time in some capacity or another. President Obama spoke of being able to transfer our efforts to Afghanistan now - do you expect he's planning a further surge in combat troops before the beginning of the drawdown? And as for the budget, Gates is only talking about slowing the rate of growth of money for the military, if I understand right? Is there any hope, once combat operations end in AfPak, that we'll see some financial relief?

I would be quite surprised if President Obama concluded that he needed more troops, and if the generals asked for more, they would probably face a huge fight inside the administration. It appears that trooop levels are set for Afghanistan. The president said again tonight that a drawdown of those troops will begin next August, though he was clear in not offering any real timetable for the pace or size of that drawdown. As for the military budget,  Secretary Gates has taken some significant steps in trying to get that budget under control but the American military will continue to consumer a significant portion of the budget for a long time into the future.


The part of his speech about President Bush almost reminded of me of Ford's pardon speech on Nixon. It seems the President not only wants to end the Iraq war but also wants to get past all the bitter partisanship that this war has generated at home. And I took it almost as a message to the Keith Olbermanns and Rachel Maddows that he wants to close the book on this instead of continuing attacks on Bush and the war supporters. Do you agree?

I think the president wants to put Iraq as far behind him as possible. He opposed the war, he has disliked the war and tonight he was able to say that combat responsiblities have ended. I think he does not want a continuation of the debate over Iraq. But those who opposed Iraq are, in increasing numbers, opposing Afghanistan. That's the policy debate he will have on his hands, and largely from within his own party.

That it for tonight. Thanks much to everyone who sent in questions or just looked into the discussion. Follow our coverage of the speech, its aftermath and the other Washington news of the day in the paper and at washingtonpost.com.


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Dan Balz
Dan Balz is Washington Post national political reporter.
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