Next for Obama: push for peace in Mideast
WASHINGTON — Firmly and finally ending the US combat mission in Iraq, President Obama will have but a moment before trying to hasten peace nearby between the Israelis and Palestinians. Left unclear is whether winding down the war that inflamed Arab passions will do anything to help long-shot Mideast talks.
From the Oval Office, a setting designed to command gravity and attention, Obama will declare tonight that Iraqis are now the ones in charge of a war he had opposed. Within hours, he will be immersed in talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, underscoring the hopeful but precarious US role as a middleman.
The White House is framing the two events as commitments kept by the president. But there is little excitement and certainly no bold promises that capping the combat mission in Iraq will prod broader peace in the Middle East.
Tonight, Obama’s emphasis will be to thank the troops and explain why the fight goes on in Afghanistan and beyond — and not so much about the potential for Iraq to be “a beacon of liberty in the Middle East’’ as President George W. Bush put it.
In a narrow sense, the peace talks convened by the White House have little to do with Iraq. The Middle East stalemate has to do with the borders of a potential Palestinian state, the fate of Palestinian refugees, the status of Jerusalem, the security of Israel — and trust on both sides. Making progress on those points, not the Iraq war, is at the core of renewed talks between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas.
Writ large, however, the fate of Iraq is indeed tied to prospects for peace for its neighbors in the region.
“The more that Iraq emerges as a stable state after the Americans withdraw, the greater the chance for progress in the Middle East, the more it creates a stable environment for the peace process to move forward,’’ said Robert Danin, a specialist on Israeli-Palestinian affairs and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “To the extent that there’s bloodshed and instability in Iraq, that makes it harder for people to focus on peacemaking.’’
Much depends on whether Iraq’s leaders can form a lasting government, whether Iran will seek to exert added influence with a smaller US presence in Iraq, and whether the United States will be perceived as the country that responsibly turned power back to Iraq or the one that left before the job was done.
For now, a presidential speech about the changing of the US mission in Iraq is as close to closure as the people of the United States will get.
All troops will not come home until the end of 2011 at the latest. The United States will still keep tens of thousands in a dangerous Iraq for support and counterterrorism missions in the meantime. More Americans are likely to die. As Obama has said, “We have not seen the end of American sacrifice in Iraq.’’
Most of the more than 4,400 US military members who have died in the Iraq war have been killed since May 2003, after Bush declared from the deck of a warship that the major combat operations were over. His backdrop then was a now infamous banner that declared “mission accomplished.’’
“You won’t hear those words coming from us,’’ said Robert Gibbs, Obama spokesman.
The United States, too, is still absorbed with a widening war in Afghanistan, the base for the Al Qaeda terrorists responsible for the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. That conflict began in 2001, even before the Iraq war. Obama’s stand is that the Iraq war, at a costly price, distracted from the cause in Afghanistan.