When President Obama delivers his highly-anticipated Oval Office address on Iraq Tuesday night, he will face the difficult challenge of marking a significant milestone -- the formal end of combat operations in Iraq -- without overstating the war's progress or underplaying the serious challenges that remain there.
White House officials say Obama will assert that he is "responsibly" ending a war that he inherited from his predecessor and vocally opposed as a U.S. senator. The president will herald the withdrawal of tens of thousands of American forces in recent months and reiterate that the remaining 50,000 U.S. troops will return home by the end of next year.
But the president won't be declaring victory. Instead, Obama is expected to praise the American military for its bravery and sacrifices in Iraq while noting that hard work remains to be done there.
Implicit in his remarks, aides say, will be an acknowledgment that it is too soon to know whether the overall U.S. mission in Iraq will end in success or failure.
The president's cautious tone reflects the fact that conditions on the ground in Iraq remain extremely fragile because of the country's lingering political instability and a renewed burst of insurgent bloodshed there.
Iraq held a successful parliamentary election in March, but the two leading vote-getters have yet to agree on who will form the country's next government. Violence is down sharply compared to earlier years of the war, but militants have carried out a string of fresh attacks in recent days, including a synchronized series of car bombings and ambushes last week that killed more than 50 Iraqis.
"There aren't that many things for the administration to crow about right now," said Andrew Exum, a counterinsurgency specialist at the Center for a New American Security and former Army Ranger. "It's fair to say that the Iraq conflict has not ended, and that we're going to be entangled in Iraq's domestic and regional politics for a long time to come."
Indeed, many senior U.S. military officials expect Washington and Baghdad to eventually negotiate a new "status of forces" agreement that will allow a few thousand American troops to remain in Iraq indefinitely to help train the country's security forces.
The White House is working hard to balance the competing imperatives of claiming credit for winding down the unpopular war without appearing to shrink from the political and security challenges that remain there.
Obama's prime-time speech Tuesday night will mark just the second time he has spoken to the nation from the Oval Office, and the White House is heralding it as a major address.
At the same time, the administration dispatched Vice President Joe Biden to Baghdad Monday for an unannounced visit designed to prod Iraq's recalcitrant political leaders to finally agree on the makeup of the country's next government.
"We are determined to build a long-term partnership with the government of Iraq and the Iraqi people, but to build a partnership you need a partner," Tony Blinken, Biden's national security adviser, told reporters in Baghdad Monday night. "The vice president is going to urge the leaders to bring this process to a conclusion."
Peter Feaver, who served on the National Security Council during the Bush administration and now teaches at Duke, said the Obama White House erred by setting a firm August 31 deadline for the end of combat operations in Iraq.
"The Iraqis didn't hear his commitment to seeing Iraq through to end; they heard his commitment to getting the numbers down to 50,000," Feaver said. "In practice, that has meant that there's been less political progress in Iraq under Obama than there had been under Bush."
Feaver, like others who served in the Bush White House, believes the former president deserves significant credit for ordering a politically risky "surge" of 20,000 U.S. reinforcements to Iraq in 2007 (the number ultimately grew to 30,000) as part of a broader shift to a counterinsurgency strategy that focused on protecting Iraqi civilians from insurgent violence.
Going forward, he argues, President Obama will deserve the credit -- or the blame -- for what happens in Iraq as U.S. troops withdraw.
"We're now fully entering the Obama era of Iraq policy," Feaver said.
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