According to the White House, last might marked the end of the Iraq War and the fulfilment of a promise the president made on the campaign trail. In his second address from the Oval Office, President Obama told viewers “our combat mission is ending,” describing the night as a “milestone” and an “historic moment.”
It was a tough sell: 50,000 troops still remain in Iraq and coordinated attacks still rock the country. But as many pundits have noted, it was the speech of a president turning the page to focus afresh on more politically pressing issues, like the economy. In their big front page report on the speech and its implications, The New York Times led with:
President Obama declared an end on Tuesday to the seven-year American combat mission in Iraq, saying that the United States has met its responsibility to that country and that it is now time to turn to pressing problems at home.
The Los Angeles Times led with:
President Obama marked the end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq on Tuesday by declaring that after more than seven years, vast expenditures and thousands of casualties, the nation must focus its shrunken resources on rebuilding the ailing domestic economy.
And the Journal followed the same formula:
President Barack Obama on Tuesday formally declared an end to combat operations in the seven-year-old Iraq War and, during an Oval Office address, promised to refocus the government from prosecuting wars to rebuilding the U.S. economy.
From such similar beginnings, the papers took some very different roads. Theirs was also a tough job: reporting on what the president said, putting it into context, and offering some sort of broader assessment of the war itself. Each balanced these tasks differently. And many fell short, dodging or glossing over Iraq’s mammoth failings or focusing too pointedly on the trivial and political.
The Times’s cover story, “Obama Declares and End to Combat Mission in Iraq,” was thorough, contained, and factual, as expected. Reporters Helene Cooper and Sheryl Gay Stolberg hewed close to Obama’s text, noting his treatment of Bush (which had had pundits guessing in the lead-up), and emphasizing the shift in focus to the economy. From there the authors offered a quite literary broadening of the issue:
The very sight of Mr. Obama addressing Americans from the Oval Office — from the same desk where Mr. Bush announced the beginning of the conflict — shows the distance traveled since the Iraq war began. On the night of March 20, 2003, when the Army’s Third Infantry Division first rolled over the border from Kuwait into Iraq, Mr. Obama was a state senator in Illinois.
And, after that, a history lesson:
Mr. Bush was at the height of his popularity, and the perception at home and in many places abroad was that America could achieve its national security goals primarily through military power. One of the biggest fears among the American troops in the convoy pouring into Iraq that night — every one of them suited in gas masks and wearing biohazard suits — was that the man they came to topple might unleash a chemical weapons attack.
Seven years and five months later, the biggest fears of American soldiers revolve around the primitive, basic, homemade bombs and old explosives in Afghanistan that were left over from the Soviet invasion. In Iraq, what was perceived as a threat from a powerful dictator, Saddam Hussein, has dissolved into the worry that as United States troops pull out they are leaving behind an unstable and weak government that could be influenced by Iran.
Overall, it’s a solid summary, but it’s lacking teeth. The number of dead and wounded is not mentioned until the nineteenth paragraph, the false intelligence that landed the U.S. in the war is only hinted at in the above excerpt. The picture is certainly not rosy as the Times tells it, but nor is it full. For that, you have to explore the paper and its website for additions to the core report—an interactive timeline on the war’s major events is particularly good, as is Anthony Shadid’s take on the withdrawal from an Iraqi perspective.