WASHINGTON — From the Rose Garden, President Barack Obama outlined a timetable for the gradual withdrawal of the last U.S. troops in Afghanistan and said confidently, "This is how wars end in the 21st century."
But less than three weeks after his May 27 announcement, there is a sudden burst of uncertainty surrounding the way Obama has moved to bring the two conflicts he inherited to a close.
In Iraq, a fast-moving Islamic insurgency is pressing toward Baghdad, raising the possibility of fresh American military action more than two years after the last U.S. troops withdrew. The chaos in Iraq also raises questions about whether Obama's plans to keep a small military presence in Afghanistan until the end of 2016 can prevent a similar backslide there or whether extremists are simply lying in wait until the U.S. withdrawal deadline passes.
"Could all of this have been avoided? The answer is absolutely yes," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said of the deteriorating situation in Iraq. McCain, one of the White House's chief foreign policy critics and Obama's 2008 presidential rival, added that Obama is "about to make the same mistake in Afghanistan he made in Iraq."
That criticism strikes at the heart of Obama's clearest foreign policy pledge: a commitment to ending the conflicts started by his predecessor, George W. Bush, and keeping the U.S. out of further military entanglements.
The turmoil in Iraq presents a particularly troubling dilemma for the White House. Obama's early opposition to the Iraq war was a defining factor in his 2008 presidential campaign and he cast the withdrawal of all American troops in late 2011 as a promise fulfilled. The president and his top advisers have since cited the end of the war as one of Obama's top achievements in office.
But the vacuum left by American forces has been filled by waves of resurgent violence and burgeoning Sunni extremism. Still, Obama resisted calls for the U.S. to get involved, saying it was now Iraq's sovereign government's responsibility to ensure the country's security.
The current situation in Iraq appears to have made that stance untenable.
Obama, who once called Iraq a "dumb war," now says it is clear the government in Baghdad needs more help from the U.S. in order to contain a violent al-Qaida inspired group that, he said, could pose a threat to American security interests.
While the White House is still evaluating a range of options, administration officials say the president is considering strikes with manned aircrafts, but only if Iraqi leaders were to outline a political plan for easing sectarian tensions.
Even limited and targeted U.S. airstrikes in Iraq would mark an almost unimaginable turn of events for many of the war-weary Americans who twice elected Obama president.
"If the president decides to double down on George W. Bush's disastrous decision to invade Iraq by launching a new round of bombing strikes, Iraq will become Barack Obama's war," said Becky Bond, political director of the progressive organization CREDO.
White House officials say it's unclear whether keeping a small contingent of American troops in Iraq after 2011 could have prevented the violence plaguing the country now. Obama did seek to reach a bilateral security accord with Iraq that would have allowed U.S. forces to stay, but an agreement could not be reached and all American forces were ordered out.
Obama has put far more effort into finalizing a security accord with Afghanistan that will allow some U.S. troops to stay in the country after combat operations formally end later this year. The administration's goal is in part to avoid a repeat of Iraq and give the U.S. military more time to strengthen Afghan security forces.
The Afghan government is expected to sign a security agreement after final results from Saturday's presidential runoff election are set to be released July 22.
Under the plan Obama announced in the Rose Garden in late May, about 10,000 troops would stay in Afghanistan at the end of the year, but be fully withdrawn by the time his presidency is coming to a close at the end of 2016.
For those tired of war, Obama's plan keeps Americans in Afghanistan too long. For the president's critics, his plan brings Americans home too soon and gives insurgents too clear a roadmap of the military's plans.
Obama acknowledged the unsatisfying nature of ending a war without signing ceremonies or clearly defined winners and losers. In a statement that seems all the more true given the past week's developments in Iraq, he said, "I think Americans have learned that it's harder to end wars than it is to begin them."
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