When Barack Obama gives only his second Oval Office speech of his term tonight, he will speak on a more traditional Oval Office topic than his first, which dealt with the Gulf oil spill and offered nothing new at all to viewers.  Tonight, Obama will use his bully pulpit to discuss the drawdown of combat troops from Iraq and his vision of American security efforts in the region.  Robert Gibbs says he will not claim a “mission accomplished” moment but instead will claim credit for keeping his promise on Iraq — except, of course, that Obama has not done what he claimed he would once elected:

As President Barack Obama marks the end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq with a major address to the nation Tuesday evening, what should be a triumphant, “Yes, I did” moment for him will be overshadowed by continued violence in Baghdad, the bad economy, the war in Afghanistan and the president’s fading popularity.

For the third time in four days, Obama will hammer home a crucial message — promise kept — in an Oval Office speech to a war-weary nation, just hours after addressing troops at Fort Bliss, an Army post near El Paso, Texas. It’s an important moment, highlighting Obama’s role as commander in chief and allowing him to claim credit for ending the deeply unpopular, seven-year-old conflict he inherited from President George W. Bush.

But for the president and White House officials, particularly those who were with Obama during the 2008 campaign, the moment has to be one of frustration. A war that largely defined much of that tumultuous campaign has faded from view for many Americans, according to numerous recent polls, meaning a controversial election year promise that Obama has kept may get scant notice because of more immediate problems.

First, let’s dispense with the “promise kept” canard, because that’s exactly what it is.  During the campaign, Obama repeatedly hammered the surge strategy that proved so effective that Obama himself is not only applying it in Afghanistan, he now has its author running the new strategy on that front in General David Petraeus.  Obama promised to have all American troops out of Iraq in 16 months regardless of conditions on the ground.

It’s to his credit — no, seriously — that he didn’t honor that promise but instead followed the game plan left for him by George W. Bush.  It would be even more to his credit if Obama acknowledged that tonight, but I doubt that will happen.

The families of those who fell in battle don’t want to hear about promises, as the Boston Herald notes well.  They want to know that this conflict achieved something significant enough for the sacrifice, and they want Obama to make that case in his speech tonight (via Jules Crittenden):

When President Obama declares the end of combat operations in Iraq from the Oval Office tonight, families of the fallen want him to tell them what their loved ones died for. And they question whether the war is really over.

“I’d love to know what we accomplished apart from losing our soldiers, one of which was my husband. I’m wondering if anyone really won,” said Melissa Storey, 32, of Palmer. Her husband, Army Staff Sgt. Clint J. Storey, 30, was killed by an improvised explosive on Aug. 4, 2006, leaving behind two young children. …

Merchant Marine Capt. Steve Sammis, whose son Marine Capt. Benjamin W. Sammis died in a helicopter crash in 2003, said Obama cannot take sole credit for the exit, noting the surge strategy that stabilized Iraq was ordered by Bush.

And Sammis added, “The soldier has yet to be born that will see victory in the war on terror. That means that in your lifetime you will not see victory in the war on terror.”

When the story of this war gets written, most will lay the responsibility on the President who fought it the longest, George W. Bush, and we will see a slew of analyses over the next week that insist he paid too high a price for his neoconservative adventure.  However, perhaps later, cooler minds will prevail and put this in proper perspective.  We had two choices in 2003: either remove Saddam Hussein or abandon Iraq to him.  The coalition that imposed military limits on Saddam was falling away, and the sanctions regime had become so corrupt that it made Saddam a multibillionaire in his personal fortunes.  His sons were poised to succeed him in this reign of terror.  Our twelve-year truce had been repeatedly violated by Saddam, who also attempted to assassinate a former President, and we had done nothing to  address any of it.

The follow-up nation building in which we engaged can also be debated, but again, we had little choice in the matter.  We either needed to stay in Iraq to raise up a new government and army, or watch as Iran seized control through the Mahdi Army or Iraq became a Somalia in Southwest Asia.  Either of those outcomes would have been orders of magnitude worse than our occupation over the last several years.  The management of the occupation was certainly debatable, but once we invaded, we had no other choice but to see it all the way through.

In fact, the die was cast in this case twenty years ago when the George H. W. Bush administration stood up to Saddam Hussein and demanded his withdrawal from Kuwait.  The decision to leave Saddam in place created the twelve-year Phoney War that followed, and left the choice of either surrender or victory to one of Bush’s eventual successors.  In the end, the war removed a brutal dictator who was murdering his own people at a far faster rate than the war did and over a much longer period of time and who, left to his own devices, would have beaten the Iranians to a nuclear weapon with equally disastrous implications.  The freely-elected but still dysfunctional government in Baghdad is at least a bright spot of hope in a dismal region, if we can remain committed enough to nurture it through friendship.  That is what our men and women fought and bled to create, and it’s to their honor that it exists today.