President Barack Obama's Oval Office address Tuesday night marked a somber milestone as the nation pivots from an unnecessary war in Iraq to an uncertain one in Afghanistan. The official end of military combat in Iraq is more relief than celebration, and the ultimate result of the enormous economic and human sacrifice is still to be determined. But it fulfills an important Obama pledge to wind down a war he inherited, and there are other pressing priorities at home and abroad that demand attention.
The war in Iraq began more than seven years ago, fueled by faulty intelligence about weapons of mass destruction that were never found. A vicious dictatorship was toppled, but the democracy that replaced it is fragile at best. Five months after Iraqi elections, Sunni and Shiite leaders have not formed a government and the Kurds are antsy about the future. America's standing in the world still has not recovered, and the consequences have been staggering.
The war in Iraq has cost this nation nearly $750 billion, and more than 4,400 American service members have been killed. The foreign policy blunders and miscalculations should not overshadow the heroic sacrifices of so many American families touched by this war, from those who lost loved ones to those who endured the strain of multiple deployments. Obama honored their service to the country and acknowledged that the commitment is not yet finished. Some 50,000 troops remain in Iraq in a largely advisory role, and their safety is far from guaranteed. But the fate of Iraq is now in the hands of the Iraqis.
"Now it is time to turn the page,'' the president said.
If only the story lines were clearer. Obama turned to Afghanistan by referring to similarities to Iraq — a surge in troop strength, a deadline to begin withdrawing troops next summer and leaving the country's future to its residents. Left unsaid was the deep uncertainty that the strategy will work and the lack of a viable partner in Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
The president then appropriately tied America's security abroad to its ability to restore prosperity at home: "Our most urgent task is to restore our economy and put the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs back to work.'' Yet there is no clear next step emerging from either the Federal Reserve or the White House. The president needs to act boldly and clearly, but he is stymied by a gridlocked Congress that cannot even pass a modest attempt to help small businesses acquire needed capital. Obstructionist Republicans smell blood in the November elections, misleading voters with the ridiculous assertion that they can cut taxes, lower the deficit and create millions of jobs simultaneously. The president has got to find his voice and his vision to reassure Americans that he feels their pain and that the government is not the enemy that the tea party crowd claims.
It was a serious, short presidential address with multiple messages to disparate audiences — from Iraqis and Afghans fearful of the future to Americans anxious about their financial futures. The themes were salient and nicely linked, laced with a renewed appeal to come together to meet the challenges at home. But Obama was once again more professorial than inspirational, and in this election year it will take something more to set a clear course in a nation that remains divided and uneasy.