- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 13, 2011

As thousands of troops stream out of Iraq and return home this week from their final deployment, President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama will honor them at a ceremony Wednesday at Fort Bragg, N.C., home to the U.S. Army Airborne, special forces and more than 50,000 troops.

During his visit, President Obama plans to offer his respect and heartfelt thanks to the 1 million U.S. troops who have served in Iraq, 4,500 of whom lost their lives and the thousands more who returned wounded.

Ending the war was a central focus of Mr. Obama’s 2008 campaign for president, so the week’s events - the trip to Ft. Bragg and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s White House visit Monday - serve as a victory lap of sorts for Mr. Obama.

The president has every reason to play up the pullout. With the faltering economy the main focus of voters in the United States and in Europe, polls show that Americans are ready to move on. Some 56 percent think that the U.S. has mostly accomplished its goals in Iraq, and three-quarters of the public support Mr. Obama’s decision to withdraw all U.S. combat troops by the end of the year, according to a Pew Research Center poll conducted in mid-November.

“If you look at public opinion, there’s pretty strong agreement that it’s time to get out of Iraq and it’s time to get out of Afghanistan,” said Heather Hulbert of the liberal-leaning National Security Network. ” … It’s really beyond politics at this point.”

No one, however, is uttering the phrase “mission accomplished” - and not just because former President George W. Bush appears to have tainted the words with a speech seemingly declaring a premature victory aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier after the initial invasion in 2003.

The president, those who support ending the war and critics alike agree that major challenges remain in maintaining Iraq’s security and cementing its role as a democratic ally and strategic partner of the United States. Violence and bombings are still a daily reality for Iraqis and for the U.S. diplomatic community that will be there for years to come, and neighboring Iran and Syria already have extended deep tentacles into the country.

While Ms. Hulbert strongly supports Mr. Obama’s decision to end the war, she remains concerned that the importance of retaining Iraq as a strategic partner to the U.S. will fall off the priority list as well.

“The whole thing will be out of sight, out of mind,” she predicted. ” … Most Americans have so many bread-and-butter issues to deal with in their daily lives, it’s one less thing to focus on.”

Others expressed far deeper concerns about the future of the country and its relationship with the United States and its adversaries.

Sen. John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, who lost to Mr. Obama in the general election, has pushed for a continued U.S. military presence in the region beyond 2011. On Monday, he called the decision to remove all troops from Iraq a failure of Mr. Obama’s and Mr. al-Maliki’s leadership.

Kimberly Kagan of the Institute for the Study of War worries that foreign policy is taking a back seat to the economy in the presidential race and that U.S. national security will suffer as a result.

“Politicians are using the economy as an excuse for formulating foreign policies that could have some very detrimental effects on American national security in the long run,” she said.

Despite the continued violence and political uncertainty, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday, the president thinks the Iraqis are ready to deal with their own security.

“As the vice president says, the big change in Iraq was the decision by the relevant players and parties and sects to engage in politics, to work out their differences peacefully, and that’s a major development,” he told reporters. “So we continue to believe that Iraq will move toward, if not always in a direct straight line, move toward greater stability and greater security.”

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