Iraq’s Alternate Endings

The papers on Obama’s Iraq address

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.

The Journal took a different approach in its story, “Obama Marks End of Iraq War to Focus on Economy,” branching out from Obama’s speech to focus less on the events of the past seven years than on the politics of the speech itself. Readers get Republican comment on the war-ending speech before they learn just how many people died and were wounded during the war’s prosecution.

Republicans marked the occasion by castigating those Democrats, including Mr. Obama, who had opposed the 2007 troop surge in Iraq and had called for a much earlier end to the war.

“It makes it easier to talk about fulfilling a campaign promise to wind down our operations in Iraq when the previous administration signs the security agreement with Iraq to end our overall presence there,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said. “It sure makes things easier when you reject your own campaign rhetoric about how the surge…shouldn’t happen and wouldn’t work.”

…Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R, Ohio), said the president’s pivot to domestic policy showed no clear plan to revive the economy beyond a call to “unleash innovation” and “strengthen our middle class.”

The Journal then notes the impact on Iraqi domestic politics:

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki—eager for a second term but facing bitter opposition from former Shiite Muslim allies and other political factions after an inconclusive election in March—seized on the milestone to bolster his standing. “Iraq today is sovereign and independent, controlling its fate and everything related to its present and future,” he said. “[O]ur heroic forces and security apparatuses will have the lead role in strengthening security and defending the country.”

There’s even an interactive showing how the words presidents have used to talk about the war have changed since 2003.

All of that is interesting, informing stuff. And perhaps the Journal is wise to play the speech for what it is: another round of politicking. But whether it’s a symbolic end to the war, an actual end, or just the latest chapter, it’s important to put this speech in context, and remind readers of how we came to the moment at which it was given last night.

For that kind of coverage, the Post out-batted its competitors today with a rigorous, fact-driven, and damning report. It nary misses nary a beat, interweaving history with Obama’s words in blunt and affecting prose.

In his speech, the president sought to unshackle the nation from a military invasion, begun by his predecessor, that was supposed to swiftly depose a dictator, seize hidden weapons of mass destruction and leave behind a democratic government.

Instead, it dragged on for more than seven years as U.S. troops battled a growing insurgency. The war became a recruiting tool and training ground for al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

Obama noted the “huge price” the United States paid during the long, wrenching conflict. Over the course of the war, 1.5 million troops served in Iraq, many of them returning for multiple tours. More than 4,400 died, and 32,000 were wounded.

Reporter Anne E. Kornblut then revisits the beginning of the war and its place in Obama’s rise to the office from which he spoke last night.

It was the contested grounds for the 2003 invasion that made it the most polarizing conflict since Vietnam. The Bush administration insisted that Iraq’s dictator, Saddam Hussein, had stockpiled a lethal arsenal of weapons of mass destruction and that he posed a threat to the United States and its allies. But those claims were based on questionable intelligence, and no such weapons were ever found. The bitter national argument over whether Bush had misled the country into war divided Americans and strained the country’s relationship with the world - ultimately setting the stage for Obama to ascend to the presidency.

Kornblut’s report is, to my mind at least, the best of this morning’s coverage. And it offers a much more damning exposé of the political nature of the speech than is offered by a survey of Republican responses. It looks grimly to the future as well:

The speech came at a seemingly arbitrary moment, on a deadline set by Obama himself and unrelated to any progress on the ground in Iraq, where a government has not been formed and deadly violence shatters daily life. While the war removed a dictator, it left civil society in tatters; electricity is still sporadic, even in Baghdad.

Interestingly, Kornblut’s was one of just a few pieces today to lead with something other than the shift in focus from Iraq to the economy we saw above. She opens with this:

Saying it is “time to turn the page” on one of the most divisive chapters in American history, President Obama declared the U.S. war in Iraq over Tuesday night, telling the nation that he was fulfilling his campaign pledge to stop a war he had opposed from the start.

It’s a taut start to a piece heavy on history, context, and accountability. Kornblut is in no rush to move on to the next issue, even if the president might be.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.