08.31.10

No Way to Wind Down a War

Obama’s speech was quiet, understated, even gracious. But Bush speechwriter Matt Latimer argues it did not grapple with the lasting consequences of one of America’s longest-running wars.

Republicans wishing that George W. Bush might have been able to declare an end to the Iraq war on his watch can be comforted by Tuesday evening’s address to the nation. There may not have been a single line in President Obama’s Oval Office speech that his predecessor would not have uttered.  All the standard lines were there: our troops in Iraq are valiant; their families have suffered and sacrificed; the war is “controversial,” but a new Iraq now has the potential to be a partner for peace; America is a wonderful country.  This was a quiet, even understated, end to one of the longest wars in our history. 

The war that helped make Barack Obama president, ruined Tony Blair’s prime ministership, and helped George Bush leave office with an approval rating lower than Nixon’s – it doesn’t seem right to end this way.

I felt cheated by it. 

This was not a fitting end to the Iraq war, at least not the one I remember–the war of Abu Ghraib and the Samarra bombing, of partisans in Code Pink t-shirts calling administration figures war criminals, of charges of “Bush lied, people died,” unilateralism, and not enough troops, the conflict that NBC on its own decided to declare a civil war, the war that Senator Harry Reid told Americans was “lost” just before the surge turned things around, while allies of the Bush White House labeled anyone who disagreed with their conduct cut and runners, unpatriotic, unconservative, traitors.  The war that helped make Barack Obama president, ruined Tony Blair’s prime ministership, and helped George Bush leave office with an approval rating lower than Nixon’s–it doesn’t seem right to end this way.  

More Daily Beast writers on Obama’s speech

Ten Iraq War Legacies
As gracious as President Obama sought to be in his remarks tonight–seeming to close the door on a harsh and ugly history–the consequences of the Iraq conflict will not be easily swept aside.  On the one hand, a sovereign Iraq does appear to be better off today than it was eight years ago.  And, yes, much credit is due to George Bush for this.  It was he alone who in the lowest moments of the conflict refused to yield on Iraq against the advice of nearly every person in his administration, his father’s administration, and the entire leadership of a Democratic Congress.  If Iraq does evolve into a strong, stable ally in the Middle East and becomes a model for others, George Bush can well claim to have had a transformative impact on world history.

But there are other consequences too.  On nearly every aspect of the war–the presence of weapons of mass destruction, the threat posed by an Iraqi insurgency, how the Iraqi army would behave after a coalition invasion–the U.S. intelligence community was not only wrong, but deathly so. Will a future president be so easily believed when he relies on intelligence estimates to rally Americans against another threat?  When do we as a nation address that?

And it remains an open question how Americans are going to like the preemption doctrine used by Democrats and Republicans to justify the Iraq war–authorizing the United States to take action against sovereign nations even before a threat to our country has fully materialized.   If memory serves, Americans weren’t too keen on Russia using that same line when its tanks barreled into Georgia in 2008.  And certainly nobody is going to applaud China if it one day decides to "preempt" perceived threats to its security in places like Japan, Taiwan, or–who knows–Hawaii.  But that discussion too apparently is for another day.

It is a wonderful thing that the conflict in Iraq can end of something of a grace note for our country.  But before the revisionism about this conflict starts to set in, at least tonight there is one thing we can all agree on. It's over. Thank God.

Matt Latimer is the author of the New York Times bestseller, SPEECH-LESS: Tales of a White House Survivor. He was deputy director of speechwriting for George W. Bush and chief speechwriter for Donald Rumsfeld.