On Tuesday evening, two years, two months and four days before the 2012 elections, Obama made yet another of his endless primetime speeches on all the major networks. "Tonight, I am announcing that the American combat mission in Iraq has ended," he declared. "We have met our responsibility. Now it is time to turn the page."
In May 2003, one year, six months and three days before the 2004 elections, George W. Bush said something similar. "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended," he said, as a banner infamously emblazoned "MISSION ACCOMPLISHED" flew in the background. "Because of you, the tyrant has fallen, and Iraq is free."
If Obama wants to separate himself from Bush, he's picking an odd way of doing it.
Bush was wrong about combat operations, of course -- and Obama's still wrong about combat operations. Deaths in Iraq have escalated dramatically over the last two months, with certain sources reporting two consecutive months of over 500 civilian deaths. Fifty thousand U.S. troops remain in the country. The democracy we were supposed to establish in Iraq has given way to an odd regime not formed according to parliamentary principles. Just last week, al-Qaida launched a series of attacks that resulted in 56 deaths. Bombings of Iraqi police gathering places still occur commonly.
Sectarian violence still plagues the country. Even as Joe Biden, in the mold of Baghdad Bob, assured the press that "Iraqi security troops are capable and qualified to shoulder the responsibility," he had to duck no less than three times because of supposed incoming fire.
Yet Obama has escaped the same scrutiny that plagued Bush.
Why the wide variance in the press' treatment? Because there is one major difference between President Bush and President Obama: Obama spends his time pushing precipitous pullouts; Bush stayed the course.
When Bush mistakenly declared that the mission had been accomplished, he made clear that our mission wasn't done. In that May 2003 speech, he repeated over and over again that the United States and her allies still had "difficult work to do in Iraq." "Our coalition will stay until our work is done," he said.It's not that Obama didn't make similar declarations on Tuesday -- he did tell troops, "Our task in Iraq is not yet completed. Our combat phase is over. But we've worked too hard to neglect the continuing work that has to be done." The difference is that Bush meant it. Obama said it for show.
It's that simple. Obama doesn't give a damn what happens in Iraq, and he never has, which is why he still can't give Bush credit for the troop surge that tamped down violence to this point. His sole comment on Bush was a defensive one -- Bush was a patriot who supported the war, and Obama is a patriot who opposed it.
Obama can't thank Bush because Obama was going to pull out regardless of the consequences. From Obama's perspective, he has nothing to thank Bush for. If Obama had gotten his way and the surge had been shelved, Iraq would have devolved into chaos -- and Obama would have pulled out American troops. If Obama didn't get his way, and the violence was tamped down -- well then, Obama still would have pulled out American troops.
That is always Obama's goal: Pulling out American troops, no matter what is left in the wake. Which is why he's pursuing exactly the same strategy in Afghanistan, the so-called "war of necessity" -- we may need to be there, according to Obama, but not as much as he needs to get American troops out of there before the beginning of his re-election campaign. This pleases the America-last press enormously, and so they treat Obama's Bush-lite rhetoric with kid gloves.
Bush had to carry the weight of his "mission accomplished" speech for the rest of his presidency, but he emerged victorious after finally hitting upon the strategy that solidified the country. Obama will have to carry the weight of his "mission accomplished" speech, too -- only Obama's utter disregard for Iraq's future will put the lie to his own statements.
"When the history books are written," Bush said shortly before leaving office, "they will show that freedom prevailed." History will be kind to George W. Bush when it comes to Iraq. It will not be nearly as kind to the man who took his place, but couldn't replace his strength of spirit.