President Obama Ends American Combat Mission in Iraq, Looks Ahead to Afghanistan

This is a rush transcript from "Special Report With Bret Baier," August 31, 2010. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I'm going to make a speech to the nation tonight. It's not going to be a victory lap. It's not going to be self-congratulatory. There is still a lot of work that we've got to do to make sure that Iraq is an effective partner with us.

HOUSE MINORITY LEADER JOHN BOEHNER, R-OHIO: The consequences of failure then, as now, were severe. Some leaders who opposed, cri ticized and fought tooth and nail to stop the surge strategy now probably claim credit for the results.


BRET BAIER, ANCHOR: Well, in just a bit, President Obama from the Oval Office will announce that the American combat mission in Iraq has ended and Operation Iraqi Freedom is finished.

Taking a look at the war since the beginning, the number of troops there since the beginning at the highest number -- 176,000 in Iraq in 2007, fewer than 50,000 troops on the ground right now. As far as casualties: 4,421 men and women died since the start of the war, 47 fatalities in 2010.

Let's bring in our panel now for some thoughts on the speech and perspective, Steve Hayes, senior writer for The Weekly Standard, Juan Williams, news analyst for National Public Radio, and syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer.

OK, Steve, thoughts on the speech tonight. We have seen a few excerpts and what the president said about it today at Fort Bliss.

STEVE HAYES, SENIOR WRITER, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: I think the real question is whether the president treats this as sort of a campaign speech, as he did in his radio address this week, or whether he talks to the country as the president, as he should when speaking from the Oval Office.

From the excerpts and from everything we've been hearing from the White House today, it seems like they didn't make a decision, sounds like he will do a little bit of both, talking about his campaign promise to bring troops home and talking about where the country of Iraq is today. I think he's going to try to do both. I think if you try to do both you are not likely to be successful.

The things that I am going to be looking for in the speech are a basic acknowledgment of the sacrifice of troops, which I expect we'll hear and hear at some length. But I hope he talks about the troops in way that treats them as warriors, not as victims. I think that is an important thing for the president to do. He hasn't done it in the past. It's an important way to talk about it.

Another thing I'm hoping that he will do, but I suspect he probably won't, is to give some credit to President Bush even in passing for the surge. The success of the surge is why the president is bringing home our troops in victory, not in defeat. He opposed it and he fought it tooth and nail as we have seen from these comments. And it would be gracious and I think politically wise for him to give some basic acknowledgment of the fact it was a politically difficult decision and the right one.

BAIER: Juan, we were told by the White House that President Obama did telephone from Air Force One to former president George W. Bush. We have some video of former President Bush and first lady Laura Bush meeting troops August 11. That is at the Dallas airport. A bunch of people come out every time troops come home on R&R there. This is from welcomehomeahero.com, this video from earlier in month.

Juan, what about recognizing former President Bush? And we should point out that they didn't want cameras there. This is the personal camera that this video is coming from -- for the president, President Obama to do tonight.

JUAN WILLIAMS, NEWS ANALYST, NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO: I was looking at the video and a wonderful gesture from President Bush. But this overall argument, I'm not sure where it's coming from. Acknowledge President Bush? You know, 60 percent of the people don't think it was right to go in there. This whole argument about preemptive war, about weapons of mass destruction, it's not helpful to the country or to President Bush. It doesn't make President Bush look good.

And what President Obama said as Senator Obama was, and Hillary Clinton also joining us, many Democrats, that the consequences of the surge was we were going to be in the country for undetermined length of time, it was going to have exorbitant cost, and we weren't sure of the consequences. That's all true.


BAIER: He actually didn't say that.


HAYES: He said it would do the reverse.

BAIER: Let's listen to then Senator Obama from 2007.


THEN-SENATOR BARACK OBAMA: This surge concept is in fact no different from what we have repeatedly tried, but with 20,000 troops we will not in any imaginable way be able to accomplish any new progress. The fact of the matter is that we have tried this road before.

In the end, no amount of American forces can solve the political differences that lie at the heart of somebody else's civil war.


BAIER: Juan?

WILLIAMS: He goes on to say it's going to have these terrible consequences and he is not in support of it.

What we see at this moment is they still can't get a coalition government formed. We know, as you pointed out, we lost more than 4,000 people. I think we spent billions, I'm not exactly sure the figure there, but much more than what President Bush said at the time.

I just think -- I understand the politics, everyone wants to point fingers and not give credit on a day when President Obama is trying to take political credit.

BAIER: I know, but that is the point.

WILLIAMS: Well, no I don't think it's the point.

I think this has been an American effort, and it's an American --

BAIER: But President Obama, would he be in -- would he be in a position to get to be able to get to this point had it not been for President Bush's decision to surge troops when he did?

WILLIAMS: No, the question is --

BAIER: That's my question.

WILLIAMS: I'll answer your question. I don't think without the surge we would be at this point, but a question is, are we at a point where we're fulfilling an American mission? That's what I hope he speaks to tonight.

The American mission is to prevent terrorists from coming to this country and attacking us. It's not nation-building or preemptive strikes. And it has to be also a factoring in what the cost has been to us in terms of blood and in terms our treasury while we're trying to get the economy back on track.

BAIER: Charles, he will speak also of Afghanistan. And in context of where he was as senator, he did not want to give the surge patience. But he will ask, we're told, for American's patience with his surge in Afghanistan tonight.

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Well, there are a lot of ironies here. The Democrats in the Afghan war complained for years that the Bush administration had had us at the cusp of success at the beginning of the Afghan war, turned away its attention to Iraq, and as a result we're in the mess we are now.

I think that is absolutely the wrong analysis. I don't know what the Democrats would have suggested as an alternative -- half a million Troops in Afghanistan? I can't imagine any Democrat would ever have offered that as an alternative.

The irony is, however, that here we are with Iraq on the cusp of success when the war was handed over from the Bush administration to Obama on inauguration day. We had a military success accomplished. Petraeus had done that with the surge.

The problem is the Obama administration was left with one task. And it's now turned its attention away to Afghanistan and left us in a position where all Obama ever wanted to do was end the war. He talks about it now, campaign promise fulfilled, at a time when Iraq doesn't have a government, and a week after Al Qaeda in Iraq pulled off simultaneous attacks in 13 cities killing 51 Iraqis, which could not have happened in January of 2009 when Obama was inaugurated.

He had one task he has not succeeded. I'm with Michael O'Hanlon with a prescient and even-handed analysis from the Brookings Institute who says this is a mistake. You don't declare an arbitrary milestone on a fixed timetable when you have no Iraqi government and Al Qaeda is resurgent. You do it when you have a stable government and then you have a ceremony in which the president and the new leader of Iraq have a ceremony in which the transition is declared mutually acknowledged. This is premature and political and it could be very costly.

BAIER: Tell us if you think the U.S. accomplished its objective in Iraq. Go to the homepage at foxnews.com/specialreport and vote in the only poll on the right-hand side of the screen.

Up next, more bloodshed in Afghanistan.



GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS, U.S./NATO AFGHANISTAN COMMANDER: There is nothing easy about this. And again, it is very, very understandable that there would be impatience and a desire to see progress right now.

But the nature of these endeavors is such that that progress is slow. It's hard fought. And as I mentioned earlier, the fact is that we're just now for the first time getting the input right.

ROBERT GATES, DEFENSE SECRETARY: If the Taliban really believed that America is headed for the exits next summer in large numbers, they will be deeply disappointed and surprised to find us very much in the fight.


BAIER: Defense Secretary Gates went on to say that the intensifying combat and the rise in casualties is really reminiscent of the early days of the Iraq surge. In fact, in Afghanistan, five more U.S. troops were killed today in the east and the south. In the past 72 hours, 19 American service members have been killed in Afghanistan, most from roadside bombs, the Taliban's weapon of choice.

We're back with the panel. Juan?

WILLIAMS: The speech tonight on some level is about Afghanistan, because the president has to build American public support for this continued effort going forward. Where are we going, what are our goals, and what are we trying to do?

It's a difficult process, as you just heard General Petraeus say. In fact, President Karzai is now putting pressure on us to shift our strategy and go after not only Al Qaeda but Taliban over in Pakistan to make the effort over there. Secretary Gates says we have to do more in terms of fighting corruption in the country to gain the trust of the Afghan people.

So all of this is taking place as we approach next June, and again, I think that is a very uncertain sort of manufactured date. I understand that everyone agreed to it, but you have to have a sense of what is the goal, why do we have Americans there in danger? Why are we put something much into it?

I think the president has to be clear this is about preventing Pakistan, preventing Afghanistan from becoming a breeding ground, and that he is willing to also go into Somalia if necessary, Yemen, whenever the terrorists are, we'll fight them. And that's what the military effort is about.

BAIER: Steve?

HAYES: Everyone has not agreed to the deadline. That's clear. Or if they agree to it, they agree to it in the same way that a child agrees to bedtime. The child doesn't have a voice in this. So the military leaders don't want this. Nobody ever said they want this.

BAIER: General Conway said as much last week.

HAYES: He said as much last week. You have serving military in uniform can't contradict the president in public but who have said repeatedly in the past that they think this handcuffs it.

I think the problem with Afghanistan today is we're reaching a point it's becoming clear we can't win unless the president publicly, loudly, and convincingly repudiates the deadline. He has got to do it. It was clear through the beginning it was going to be problematic. We heard from all the external parties.

It is fatal and lethal to the efforts in Afghanistan. And yet largely for domestic and political purposes, as we read again in the "New York Times" last week, he persists in continuing with it.

BAIER: More than 100 House Democrats voted against the funding of the war in Afghanistan, making some of the arguments that then Senator Obama made about the Iraq war when he was speaking about it back in 2006 and 2007. Charles, this is a political situation for the president.

KRAUTHAMMER: Absolutely. It's a remarkable irony that you hear the same protagonists, Gates and Petraeus, as we saw in the clips, arguing in favor of a surge in Afghanistan that they argued in the Bush administration three years ago again in the tease of Democratic opposition about Iraq. Same idea.

And I think people talking about whether Obama will be gracious enough to acknowledge the success of the surge in Iraq are missing the point. I think Obama by his actions has acknowledged the success of the surge. He has the same commander, the same secretary of state, the same strategy, a reorientation of the counterinsurgency strategy of protecting the population, and the same mechanism, increasing troop level, as his previous effort that Bush had done in Iraq with success. So imitation here is the highest form of approbation. This is a guy repeating it and showing that the Iraq surge worked. And now, ironically, of course, he's proposing a surge in Iraq, Afghanistan, which will require the kind of patience and understanding that he, Obama, as a senator never gave the previous administration.

BAIER: That same secretary of defense may have been the message they were trying to send today, saying, quote, "Three-and-a-half years ago very few believed the surge in Iraq could take us to where we are today," Defense Secretary Gates.