When then-Sen. Barack Obama visited the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board in 2008, I had one question for him: Which Democratic candidate for president would be best at keeping Iraq from imploding?
"That would be me," Obama answered.
He called Operation Iraqi Freedom "an enormous strategic mistake." Nonetheless, Obama also noted that, once the war had begun, "We had an obligation to fund our troops and to try to make this work as best we can." And: "Once we were in, we had some obligation, both strategic and humanitarian, to stabilize the country, and that we should be as careful getting out as we were careless getting in."
On Tuesday night, as I watched the president's speech on the war in Iraq, I felt that Obama delivered on that pledge.
True, the president did not meet his then-highly dubious plan to pull all U.S. combat troops out of Iraq by the end of 2009. Instead, he stuck with the withdrawal timeline signed by President George W. Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in December 2008.
That decision cost Obama enthusiasm among his anti-war base, but it also may well have prevented a cascade of the sort of disasters likely to follow a precipitous pullout.
Also to his credit, Obama has not abandoned his nomination-speech pledge to "finish the fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan."
Of course, there are caveats.
First, while the president announced "that the American combat mission in Iraq has ended," everyone knows that the remaining 50,000 U.S. troops in Iraq will face fire. The "combat mission" may have ended, but combat has not.
Second, as Obama himself recognized in the Chronicle meeting, America retains its obligation to prevent "mayhem and genocide" in Iraq. As he explained, "I would always reserve the right, if I saw wholesale civilian slaughter, to intervene -- hopefully in an international coalition."
Having announced the combat mission over, however, the president will face pressure not to intervene should the unthinkable occur.
Third, it's hard not to fear for the future when the last decade has shown how easy it has been for politicians to walk away from a war effort, even if they voted to go to war.
Consider that all four Democratic hopefuls in 2008, who were in the Senate during the 2002 Iraq war vote -- Joe Biden, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Chris Dodd and John Edwards -- did vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq. Yet all four later renounced the war. Ditto the Dems' 2004 presidential nominee, Sen. John Kerry.
All expected to pay a small political price for changing sides, even though the troops who lost their lives or limbs in combat can't go back in time. In 2002, Obama found it easy to accuse Bush of sending U.S. troops to war in Iraq in order to "distract us from corporate scandals and a stock market that has just gone through the worst month since the Great Depression." But in his speech Tuesday night, the president rightly noted, "There were patriots who supported this war, and patriots who opposed it."
Alas, there were opportunists on both sides as well. Note how many of the very peace activists who hounded Bush on the absolute immorality of the war in Iraq in particular have become largely silent with Obama at the helm.
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