President Obama opposed the war in Iraq. He still thinks it was a mistake. It's therefore unrealistic for supporters of the war to expect the president to give the speech John McCain would have given, or to expect President Obama to put the war in the context we would put it in. He simply doesn't believe the war in Iraq was a necessary part of a broader effort to fight terror, to change the Middle East, etc. Given that (erroneous) view of his, I thought his speech was on the whole commendable, and even at times impressive.
The speech had, as he said at the top, three parts: "Tonight, I’d like to talk to you about the end of our combat mission in Iraq, the ongoing security challenges we face, and the need to rebuild our nation here at home."
On the first topic, he portrayed the fact that we sustained the combat mission for over seven years as a "message to the world that the United States of America intends to sustain and strengthen our leadership in this young century." That was good. He credited our men and women in uniform rather than the civilian leadership of the country for the accomplishments of the mission—but that was both understandable and even, in a way, appropriate. He did—probably as much as an anti-Iraq war president could—nod both to the justice and the achievement of the war, saying that our men and women in uniform had "defeated a regime that had terrorized its people," and that, "Together with Iraqis and coalition partners who made huge sacrifices of their own, our troops fought block by block to help Iraq seize the chance for a better future.... Because of our troops and civilians—and because of the resilience of the Iraqi people—Iraq has the opportunity to embrace a new destiny, even though many challenges remain."
The president praised Iraq's elections, and said that the new Iraqi government "will have a strong partner in the United States. Our combat mission is ending, but our commitment to Iraq’s future is not." This was worthwhile. It's true the president unfortunately felt he had to restate that, "Consistent with our agreement with the Iraqi government, all U.S. troops will leave by the end of next year." But the "Consistent..." phrase leaves open the possibility that the Iraqi government will ask us to reach a new agreement. And the president did emphasize "our long-term partnership with Iraq—one based upon mutual interests, and mutual respect.... What America can do, and will do, is provide support for the Iraqi people as both a friend and a partner."
In sum, the president seemed to me to go about as far as an anti-Iraq war president could go in praising the war effort: "We have persevered because of a belief we share with the Iraqi people—a belief that out of the ashes of war, a new beginning could be born in this cradle of civilization. Through this remarkable chapter in the history of the United States and Iraq, we have met our responsibility."
As for the second topic—"the ongoing security challenges we face"—the president's discussion of the fight against al Qaeda seemed to me adequate, given that he was not simply going to renounce the July 2011 transition date. "The pace of our troop reductions will be determined by conditions on the ground, and our support for Afghanistan will endure," was about as good as we were going to get.
The rest of the (brief) discussion of world affairs was pedestrian. The little pep talk about our economy and the commitment to helping veterans were relatively inoffensive.
The close, was, I thought, well done. The president located those who fought in Iraq in the unbroken line of those who, from Lexington to Kandahar, "gave their lives for the values that have lived in the hearts of our people for over two centuries" and who "have fought to see that the lives of our children are better than our own." There was a welcome implicit repudiation of Neville Chamberlain and appeasement, as President Obama praised our troops for having "fought in a faraway place for people they never knew."
And at the end: "Our troops are the steel in our ship of state. And though our nation may be traveling through rough waters, they give us confidence that our course is true, and that beyond the pre-dawn darkness, better days lie ahead." Not a bad tribute to the troops, and not a bad statement of the importance and indispensability of hard power.
And, on the whole, not a bad speech by the president.