WASHINGTON — Firmly and finally ending the U.S. combat mission in Iraq, President Barack Obama will have but a moment before trying to hasten peace nearby between Israelis and Palestinians. Left unclear is whether winding down the war that inflamed Arab passions will do anything to help long-shot Mideast talks.
From the Oval Office, a setting designed to command gravity and attention, Obama will declare tonight that Iraqis are now the ones in charge of a war he had opposed. Within hours on Wednesday, he will be immersed in talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, underscoring the hopeful but precarious U.S. role as a middleman.
The White House is framing the two events as commitments kept by the president. But there is little excitement buzz and certainly no bold promises that capping the combat mission in Iraq, which began in March 2003, will prod broader peace in the Middle East.
Tonight, Obama's emphasis will be to thank the troops and explain why the fight goes on in Afghanistan and beyond — and not so much about the potential for Iraq to be "a beacon of liberty in the Middle East," as President George W. Bush put it.
In a narrow sense, the peace talks convened by the White House have little to do with Iraq. The Middle East stalemate has to do with the borders of a potential Palestinian state, the fate of Palestinian refugees, the status of Jerusalem, the security of Israel — and trust on both sides. Writ large, however, the fate of Iraq is indeed tied to prospects for peace for its neighbors in the region.
Much depends on whether Iraq's leaders can form a lasting government, whether Iran will seek to exert added influence with a smaller U.S. presence in Iraq, and whether the United States will be perceived as the country that responsibly turned power back to Iraq or the one that left before the job was done.
"The more that Iraq emerges as a stable state after the Americans withdraw, the greater the chance for progress in the Middle East, the more it creates a stable environment for the peace process to move forward," said Robert Danin, an expert on Israeli-Palestinian affairs and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "To the extent that there's bloodshed and instability in Iraq, that makes it harder for people to focus on peacemaking."
For now, a presidential speech about the changing of the U.S. mission in Iraq is as close to closure as the people of the United States will get.
All troops will not come home until the end of 2011 at the latest. The United States will still keep tens of thousands in a dangerous Iraq for support and counterterrorism missions in the meantime. More Americans are likely to die. As Obama has said: "We have not seen the end of American sacrifice in Iraq."
Most of the more than 4,400 U.S. military members who have died in the Iraq war have been killed since May 2003 — after Bush declared the major combat operations over from the deck of a warship. His backdrop then was a now infamous banner that declared "mission accomplished."
"You won't hear those words coming from us," Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs said Monday.
The United States, too, is still absorbed with the widening war in Afghanistan, the base for the al-Qaida terrorists responsible for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. That conflict began in 2001, even before the Iraq war. Obama's stand is that the Iraq war, at a costly price, distracted from the cause in Afghanistan.
Obama is giving the combat troop withdrawal from Iraq a big spotlight. He dispatched Vice President Joe Biden to Iraq on Monday to mark the moment and push Iraqi leaders for resolution of their political divisions. Today, Obama will fly to sprawling Fort Bliss in Texas, home of tens of thousands of service members who fought in the Iraq war.
And then he will give just his second prime-time address from the Oval Office.
Ben Feller is a White House correspondent for the Associated Press.