The last American troops are coming home from Iraq this month, and President Obama is marking the occasion with a series of events to commemorate the conclusion of the war.
On Wednesday at Fort Bragg, N.C., he and the first lady will thank troops for their service.
This event is a decade in the making, with far-reaching implications including domestic political consequences.
Obama began his victory lap several weeks ago. In Scranton, Pa., he told a cheering crowd, “This holiday seasons is going to be a season of homecomings, because by the end of December, all of our troops are going to be out of Iraq. They’re going to be back home.”
Polls show that the American people give President Obama a lot of credit for bringing the troops home. “When you have 48 percent of Republicans saying they approve of something President Obama has done, the White House has to be happy about that,” says Pew Research Center President Andy Kohut.
Seventy-five percent of all Americans say they approve of the decision to end the war this year, according to Pew.
Some alumni of the George W. Bush administration say the credit is misplaced: They note that President Bush set this timetable three years ago.
“This is an historic occasion for the United States and for Iraq,” said Ryan Crocker, then-U.S. ambassador to Iraq, at a formal signing ceremony in Baghdad in November of 2008. He and his Iraqi counterpart officially agreed to a status of forces agreement that set December 2011 as an end date for the war.
Just before leaving office, President Bush made a surprise visit to Iraq for a symbolic signing of that deal. It was meant to create a good memory, but the day is more often remembered for a disruption at the news conference when an Iraqi TV journalist threw his shoes at Bush, shouting: “This is a gift from the Iraqis, this is a farewell kiss, you dog!”
At that time, December 2011 sounded far in the future. But even then, many administration officials did not expect the date to hold.
“That was a framework in which, then, further negotiations could be had to have troops sort of outlive that end date,” recalls Juan Zarate of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Zarate, who was a deputy national security adviser to President Bush, says, “It was also assumed and seen as possible that the Iraqis would need and want American presence, would want American trainers in Iraq post-December 2011, and that we would find it in our interest to actually be on the ground with the Iraqis.”
A few months after the Bush administration signed that agreement with the Iraqis, Barack Obama took office, and he had been promising for years: “I will end this war.”
Despite that promise, the Obama administration continued to negotiate for some military personnel to remain in Iraq, mostly in a training role, beyond 2011.
“We said to the Iraqis as we were continuing our drawdown that we were open to a discussion with them about a future relationship between the United States and Iraq after 2011, and that we’d be responsive to a request from them,” says Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes.
However, the two sides could not reach an agreement.
“They requested training and assistance beyond 2011, but we agreed with the Iraqis that the best way to do that was to remove all U.S. troops and have a relationship that’s like the relationship we have with many countries around the world, where we sell them military equipment, we show them how to use it, we can do joint exercises, but we’ll have no U.S. troops based in the country,” says Rhodes.
The main sticking point for a continued troop presence involved their legal status. The U.S. did not want Americans subject to Iraqi courts, and the Iraqis would not agree to an immunity deal. So all the US troops are coming home.
And if two administrations can claim credit, only one is still in office.
Andy Kohut of Pew says politically, this is unambiguously a win for Obama. And while this is hardly the top issue for American voters, Kohut says it does make a difference.
“It is not the most important thing on people’s minds, that is the economy and jobs specifically,” says Kohut, “But presidential leadership is nonetheless an important evaluation in decisions about who the next president will be. Not as important as the economy, but not unimportant either.”
That’s one more reason Obama will spend the week drawing attention to the troops’ return.