President Obama's Oval Office speech earlier this week should have felt like a win for the administration. The official transfer of power that came hours later in Iraq should have been the "victory lap" the president desperately needs from a political standpoint.
Instead, many critics of the White House saw the speech and subsequent ceremony (overseen by Vice President Biden as the mission transitioned from "Operation Iraqi Freedom" to "Operation New Dawn") as a drab performance that contrasted sharply with the vigor (and perhaps misguided zeal) that the Bush administration used to lead the United States against the late Saddam Hussein and Iraq in 2003.
More than anything else, though, the transition of power is displaying an unexpected link between the two presidents: a bond in accomplishment and, even more, in any apprehension that the Iraqis may have about the U.S.
The "hat-tip" gestures that President Obama made toward former President George W. Bush — first with a phone call and then his acknowledgment during the 19-minute prime time speech later Tuesday evening — were more than just recognition of the man whose administration initiated one of the longest (and most controversial) wars in American history. It also symbolized a subtle but significant admission that the surge policy President Obama ardently opposed as a candidate (going so far as to propose to end "Operation Iraqi Freedom" by March 2008) was not only the proper military move in Iraq but is now the prime directive on the ground in Afghanistan as well.
By sticking to this Bush initiative, President Obama has been able to keep a well-publicized campaign promise to shift the war's primary focus from Iraq to Afghanistan. Some may argue that the focus should not have been on attacking Iraq after Sept. 11, 2001, in the first place, but the increased nuclear ambitions of Iran and the persistent influence of the Taliban in Afghanistan have given President Obama no choice but to continue President Bush's surge policy.
Although the animosity may never reach the point where Iraqi reporters throw shoes at him as one did at Bush, President Obama may suffer the lingering disgust of a nation whose sovereignty is tied to his commitment to continue — and to be successful — with an unpopular initiative.
If the formation of the Iraqi government is further delayed during Operation New Dawn — particularly if Sunni-led insurgency efforts resume — Presidents Bush and Obama will be tied together in the history of the Iraqi War by more than the surge.
Both men will be seen as dangerously similar by Iraqis and their neighbors: as leaders who brought death and upheaval to their doorsteps without the resources, know-how or persistence to guarantee something better to replace the government they overthrew. If this occurs at the westward border of a nuclear Iran, it may sadly take another initiative — or even another American president - to defuse the animosity before more lives are lost.
Lenny McAllister is a syndicated political commentator and the author of an upcoming new edition of the book Diary of a Mad Black PYC (Proud Young Conservative): The Obama Era, Part I (2008-2010). Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.