Closing a divisive chapter of American history, President Barack Obama marked the end of the nation's combat mission in Iraq on Tuesday without declaring victory, winding down the U.S. role in a war he considered a terrible mistake.
Obama's defiant pledge to end the war helped catapult him into office. Now as commander in chief, he is intent on assuring the nation and the stretched military that all the work and bloodshed in Iraq was not in vain, declaring that because of it "America is more secure."
Though the U.S. commitment in Iraq is winding down, as many up to 50,000 troops will stay as long as the end of next year to help train the country's forces and operate counterterrorism missions. And Obama is sending more troops to Afghanistan, the home base of the Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaida terrorists, where Americans have been fighting for nearly nine years.
"It is going to be a tough slog," Obama said of Afghanistan in remarks earlier Tuesday to soldiers at Fort Bliss, Texas. "But what I know is that after 9/11, this country was unified in saying we are not going to let something like that happen again." Defense Secretary Robert Gates said success in Afghanistan was possible but "is not inevitable."
Tuesday night, the president was to deliver a 15-20 minute speech in prime time from the Oval Office. His point was to mark Aug. 31, 2010, as the final day the U.S. led the war in Iraq after more than seven years.
"It's not going to be a victory lap," Obama said earlier in the day at Fort Bliss, a post that has lost 51 soldiers in the Iraq war and seen many more severely wounded. "It's not going to be self-congratulatory. There's still a lot of work that we've got to do to make sure that Iraq is an effective partner with us."
In fact, Iraq is in political turmoil, its leaders unable to form a new government long after March elections that left no clear winner. In Baghdad on Tuesday, Vice President Joe Biden pressed Iraqi leaders anew to break the impasse. The uncertainty has left an opening for insurgents to pound Iraqi security forces, hardly the conditions the U.S. envisioned for this transition deadline, which Obama announced 18 months ago.
Since the war began, more than 4,400 U.S. troops have been killed and almost 32,000 have been wounded. The war is one of the longest in the nation's history, even as the one in Afghanistan continues.
Obama's big day was defined by what it was -- a turning point, a promise kept -- and by what it was not.
It is not the end of the war. More U.S. troops are likely to die.
All U.S. troops are not expected to leave Iraq until the end of 2011, a final agreement that was secured before Obama took office.
"I am not saying all is, or necessarily will be, well in Iraq," Defense Secretary Gates said Tuesday. He warned that political paralysis and sectarian violence cloud the country's future, but he emphasized that overall violence is at its lowest level since the war began.
Obama has accelerated the end of the U.S. role in Iraq by pulling home nearly 100,000 troops.
The American public has largely moved on. The prevailing worry now is joblessness at home.
Almost forgotten are the intense passions and protests that defined the Iraq debate through much of the past decade. Or that lawmakers of both parties authorized President George W. Bush to go to war.
What emerged was not just a war but a Bush doctrine of pre-emptive force against perceived threats, one that reshaped how the world viewed the United States. In Iraq, the intelligence that made the case for war was faulty; no weapons of mass destruction were ever found.
Saddam Hussein was toppled, and Iraqis now live in greater freedom, but those were not the rationales for war. The aim was, as Bush put it in his own Oval Office address in 2003, "to defend the world from grave danger."
Obama called the war the wrong one, a misguided conflict that inflamed anti-American sentiment. The war he owns is in Afghanistan, and he is escalating it in hopes of securing the peace and getting troops home.
The national focus has turned to that war and to the staggering economy in the U.S. In particular, weeks ahead of a vital congressional election in the U.S., Obama wants Americans to see a linkage between getting out of Iraq and investing more money at home.
A major thrust of Obama's speech was to honor the service of U.S. troops and civilian workers in Iraq. Another was to assure Iraqis that the United States is not abandoning them.
And yet another mission is to remind the country, in Obama's view, about where the true threats to national security lie, including in Afghanistan.
Just 38 percent of people support the war in Afghanistan, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll, and only 19 percent think things will get better in the next year. On Iraq, unsurprisingly, Obama finds more support in pulling troops home: 68 percent approve of his ending the formal combat mission.
The cost has been financial, too. Congress has allotted more than $1 trillion for both wars.
The Iraq war linked Obama and Bush before the Democrat won the White House, and has ever since. Obama never ran against Bush, but his 2008 campaign against Republican Sen. John McCain often felt that way.
Fittingly, Obama called Bush about Iraq on Tuesday, more than seven years after the former president declared that major combat operations were over. The White House said the call was private and would not say more.