Bruce Hoffman

No End in Sight

President Obama’s much anticipated address to the nation tonight is being billed as the fulfillment of an election commitment. Nothing more, nothing less. Yet, at a time when the United States seems both frustrated and increasingly enervated and by our prolonged commitment in Afghanistan, tonight’s address affords the President a signal opportunity to explain his vision of success for America’s involvement in that country as well and the conditions that will eventually lead to an end of active U.S. combat operations there.

The supposed end of America’s combat mission in Iraq will certainly be heralded in far more somber and sober tones than President Bush’s meretricious “Mission Accomplished” speech and dramatic landing aboard the U.S.S. Lincoln seven years ago. Like 1970s hair, clothing and home décor, one still cringes at the fatuous media circus that was orchestrated to frame that event——exactly at the moment when Iraq was descending into unmitigated chaos and renewed bloodshed.

“You won’t hear those words [e.g., “mission accomplished”] coming from us,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs promises, but what will Americans hear that might assuage their concerns not only about our protracted involvement in corruption-tainted Afghanistan, but about our legacy in Iraq?

The danger is that, in our desire to sequentially rid ourselves of the messy wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere that have dominated American national security in the 21st Century, the same wishful thinking that attended the hoopla of President Bush’s descent onto the Lincoln’s flight deck again will surface tonight.

For instance, is it really possible to announce an end to active American combat operations when, according to Brian Fishman, an analyst at the Washington, DC-based New America Foundation and adjunct professor in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, there were more terrorist attacks in Iraq (566) than in any other country in the world?

At a time when the U.S. is pulling out, it is especially troubling that the bloodletting in Iraq, which claimed the lives of nearly 700 persons earlier this year, not only continues but has intensified. Witness last week’s tidal wave of car bombings, roadside mines and hit-and-run attacks that swept through Iraq and “whose breadth,” the New York Times reported, “surprised American military officials and dealt a blow to Iraq’s fledgling security forces.” In a dramatic show of force, al-Qaeda in Iraq targeted thirteen different cities and towns and killed over fifty people.

Moreover, the fact that six months have passed since national elections were held and Iraq is still without a ruling government can only complicate existing security arrangement and breath life into the terrorists’ ongoing efforts to bring the country to its knees. Through violence and bloodshed, al-Qaeda in Iraq has fomented a climate of fear and alarm by demonstrating the authorities’ inability to maintain order and thus highlight its weakness. Spectacular acts of violence, such the widespread attacks that rocked Iraq last week, are meant to demoralize the population and undermine trust and confidence in the government’s ability to protect and defend them.

It thus seems a particularly curious time for President Obama’s proclamation that active U.S. combat operations in Iraq have ended and American combat troops can now prudently be withdrawn.

In an article published in the New York Review of Books over a year ago, Mark Danner reflected on the legacy of torture left by President Bush’s war on terror and the indelible stain of the Abu Ghraib prison episode on the American psyche. He wrote, in the context of Barack Obama’s triumphal ascent to the White House that, “We think time and elections will cleanse our fallen world but they will not.”

Tonight we risk being similarly lulled into believing we won and that the war in Iraq, if only for the U.S., is effectively over. But, despite our most fervent hopes and desires, that war incontrovertibly still rages. No End in Sight was the apt title of Charles Ferguson’s superb 2007 documentary about America’s involvement in Iraq. Given the conditions in Iraq today, realistically, it is no less true in 2010 than it was three years ago.