On the 2008 campaign trail, then-Sen. Barack Obama differentiated himself from the competition by claiming that he never would have voted to go to war in Iraq, opposed that war from the beginning — and vowed to end it if elected president.
On Friday, President Obama fulfilled his campaign promise with the announcement that he will pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq by the end of the year.
"After nearly nine years, America's war in Iraq will be over," the president said before the White House Press Corps on Friday afternoon, an hour after speaking with Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki about a troop drawdown.
"Over the next two months, our troops in Iraq, tens of thousands of them, will pack up their gear and board convoys for their journey home. The last American soldier will pass the border of Iraq with their head held high, proud of their success and knowing that the American people stand united in their support for our troops. That is how America's military efforts in Iraq will end."
Although Obama claimed that he and Maliki were in full agreement about how to move forward, reports say that the president tried to retain residual forces in Iraq for training and security but was unable to negotiate the deal. In turn, Obama took a positive tone while announcing that "our troops will definitely be home for the holidays," and that he can now focus even more intently on strengthening the national economy.
"As we welcome home our newest veterans, we'll never stop working to give them and their families the care, the benefits and the opportunities that they have earned," he said. "This includes enlisting our veterans in the greatest challenge that we now face as a nation — creating opportunity and jobs in this country, because after a decade of war, the nation that we need to build, and the nation that we will build, is our own, an America that sees its economic strength restored, just as we've restored our leadership around the globe."
The Root caught up with former Army Secretary Clifford Alexander, the first African American to hold the post, for his reactions. Like the president, he said he was also against the war from the beginning.
"I thought he did an excellent job stating the conclusion to a war that should have never been started," Alexander told The Root. "This is an end to a very conflicted history in our country."
Alexander also expressed concern, however, over what might come afterward — for example, how to handle the thousands of U.S. civilian contractors who remain.
"Are we going to pay for this, and if so, what is the point? Sometimes our country does things out of habit, and staying there is a bad habit," he said. "I also feel in our president's maturity, he has come to judge the advice that he gets from alleged military experts, both civilian and those in uniform, with a skeptical eye. I hope that this will get us out of the habit of just presuming that whenever a military expert says that he or she things we ought to do something that we do it, rather than thinking about it and seeing if it's in the security and economic interests of this country."
Alexander disagrees with the view that we should keep residual troops in Iraq for training and security purposes.
"What is the security that we are keeping in Iraq? It's not our responsibility to run that government or to create security agreements with them. Somebody sold a bill of goods that we should have a security agreement, and then 10,000 contractors get out there and make millions of dollars enforcing it," he said.
"Right now, when the poverty level in this country includes 46 million people, when almost 30 million young people go to bed hungry, that is the responsibility of this government — not a security force in Iraq."
Despite his decided stance against the war, Alexander rebuffs questions swirling about whether — after nine years, $1 trillion and nearly 4,500 American fatalities, plus the deaths of Iraqi and coalition partners — the war was worth it.
"I think that's the wrong question," he said. "Whenever you're talking about individuals who put on a uniform and risk their lives, we all need to be thankful that they're willing to do this. They follow the orders that they are given. It isn't a question of ‘worth' in that sense. I think it's a question of understanding what their sacrifices are. I have great sympathy with the families who have lost loved ones or who have badly injured loved ones. I think that's a separate issue from the sense of this war in the first place — and I don't think it made any sense."
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.