At the beginning of Manderlay, Lars von Trier's underrated 2005 film about the legacy of American slavery, the audience is given a brief glimpse at the gates of fictional Alabama plantation Manderlay. Atop the wrought iron fence, which overlooks a modest but healthy cotton crop, is a short passage from Alabama's eponymous state song: "Little, little can I give," it reads.
The lyric foreshadows the movie's ultimate and tremendously controversial conclusion: that liberal do-gooders, though their hearts are in the right place, can make things worse for black Americans than slavery did. Tonight, from his Oval Office power seat, President Obama will give his "Little, little can I give" speech.
One week ago, the president made good on his promise to withdraw all combat troops from Iraq. With just 50,000 servicemen and servicewomen remaining in-country, and those left doing only missions with the full support of Iraqi forces, there's a real end in sight to a disastrous seven-year engagement that many Americans, including Obama himself, have come to loathe.
There were successes in Iraq, to be sure: the toppling (read: killing) of despot Saddam Hussein and his brutal sons; the securing of democratic elections; the U.S. military's ability to prevent an all-out civil war in 2007, when the tactical troop surge saw America's Iraqi ground forces almost triple — each of these was a victory in and of itself, making the fact that we didn't come close to "winning" the Iraq war a slightly easier pill to swallow. Still, we didn't win, and the costs have been great.
Besides the hundreds of billions spent, thousands of American soldiers are now dead because of our battle to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis, and more continue dying every day (unfortunately, "no more combat troops" doesn't mean no more combat). Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians — perhaps a million — have lost their lives in the conflict. What's more, the most recent elections in Iraq have yet to form a coalition government, augmenting its myriad other problems.
Perhaps owing to these grave losses, the Obama administration has in recent days taken a somber tone when talking about our wars in the Middle East. Yesterday, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the government would hold off on declaring "mission accomplished" in Iraq, an infamous proclamation issued by President Bush in 2003, seven years before our combat troops would actually leave the country. "You won't hear those words coming from us," said Gibbs. "Obviously, tomorrow marks a change in our mission. It marks a milestone that we have achieved in removing our combat troops. That is not to say that violence is going to end tomorrow. We understand that those that would foment violence will still continue to try to do so."
Gone is the cowboy-ish hubris of the Bush years that got us into this mess; welcome to the realistic, sober assessments of an administration coming to grips with its own shortcomings. And lest you should think this is some sort of internal secret, take a look at the story emblazoned on this week's Economist: "After Iraq: The Limits of American Power."
After his speech tonight, during which it's likely the president will have all the bursting optimism of Secretary Gates this morning, Obama will, within hours, begin trying to massage peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders on Wednesday. Not only are these talks coming on the heels of a recalcitrant Israel moving forward — to the U.S.'s chagrin — with plans for settlements on Palestinian land, but they're coming as America is realizing that, just maybe, the turmoil in the Middle East may be beyond its historically lengthy and powerful reach.
It's frightening to think, especially with Osama bin Laden and many of his cronies still on the loose, but perhaps the Obama administration will never be able to utter "mission accomplished," though not for lack of trying. Sometimes you just have to follow the wisdom of Alabama: "Little, little can I give."
Cord Jefferson is The Root's Washington correspondent.