President Obama faced a major dilemma heading into Tuesday's prime-time address on Iraq: How do you mark the milestone of a campaign promise fulfilled when what has happened in Iraq isn't exactly "mission accomplished"? It was an obstacle that Obama never quite overcame in his 18-minute speech, which was remarkably disjointed for a president well known for his eloquence.
In only his second Oval Office address, Obama was careful not to use words like "victory" or "win" when announcing the end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq. That's because Iraq, seven and a half years and thousands of lost American lives later, remains a largely dysfunctional democracy, heavily dependent on U.S. aid. While Obama met his political goal of withdrawing combat troops, 50,000 American personnel will remain on the ground there until at least next year, as the threat of violence in the region continues.
"Violence will not end with our combat mission," Obama warned. "Extremists will continue to set off bombs, attack Iraqi civilians and try to spark sectarian strife." But ultimately, the president insisted, "these terrorists will fail to achieve their goals."
The president then somberly tried to shift the focus, saying it's time "turn the page" away from one crisis to a pair of others. He braced Americans for what will be continued sacrifice both at home, as the nation struggles to rebuild a collapsed economy, and abroad, where continued American bloodshed in Afghanistan is a virtual certainty.
"This historic moment comes at a time of great uncertainty for many Americans. We have now been through nearly a decade of war. We have endured a long and painful recession. And sometimes in the midst of these storms, the future that we are trying to build for our nation -- a future of lasting peace and long-term prosperity -- may seem beyond our reach," Obama said.
The president fleetingly acknowledged his own opposition to the Iraq war, mentioning that he had disagreed with former President George W. Bush, with whom he spoke earlier today. He did not mention he opposed the 2007 troop surge that was widely credited for turning the Iraq effort around. Instead, in a pitch aimed squarely at Democrats who have been increasingly critical of the war in Afghanistan, Obama insisted it was time to "turn the page" here, too, and refocus on what had been the larger goal of both wars: preventing another al-Qaida attack on the U.S. and its allies.
"But, as was the case in Iraq, we cannot do for Afghans what they must ultimately do for themselves," Obama said, repeating his pledge to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan next July. "The pace of our troop reductions will be determined by conditions on the ground, and our support for Afghanistan will endure. But make no mistake: This transition will begin — because open-ended war serves neither our interests nor the Afghan people's."
Pivoting to domestic issues, Obama said the nation's "most urgent task" is rebuilding an economy that has been put under pressure by paying for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — though he offered no specifics. "We must tackle those challenges at home with as much energy and grit and sense of common purpose as our men and women in uniform who have served abroad," the president said. "This will be difficult. But in the days to come, it must be our central mission as a people, and my central responsibility as president."
Ahead of a crucial midterm election, Obama's goal in the speech was to remind the public of a promise he had delivered on and mark a moment of transition for the nation. But by tying together two messy wars with no clear ends and an economic struggle that defies easy solutions, the president's sometimes confusing remarks tonight were less the mark of an important milestone and more of a somber reminder of the difficult days ahead for him and the country.
You can view the entire speech here.
All video courtesy of ABC News. For more visit ABC News.com
(Photo of Obama by AP)