Here are the top two words I want to hear President Obama say in his Oval Office speech about Iraq: Never again.
The White House says that in his Tuesday night address, the president will praise the troops, outline the situation in Iraq and look ahead in Afghanistan
. He won't say "Mission Accomplished," but we are clearly at a point of demarcation: The combat mission is over.
I get it. On his list of campaign promises, the president wants to check the box next to "responsibly get us out of Iraq" and quickly move on.
But for me, that's not enough. I want to hear about first principles from him – principles that determine when we go to war. I want to hear about fact-based decision-making – why we go to war. I want to hear about smart planning and contingency planning and choosing competent people to lead us into, and out of, potential quagmires. In short, I want to know I can once again trust my government.
House Minority Leader John Boehner is online with a video criticizing Obama and other Democrats who questioned the 2007 troop surge
that helped turn the tide in Iraq. Never mind whether the surge would have succeeded without the tribal revolt against al-Qaeda in Iraq, known as the Sunni "awakening
," or vice versa.The issue isn't who supported or opposed the surge. It's who supported or opposed the war in the first place.
The idea of invading Iraq seemed incomprehensible to me. So did the sight of so many Democrats so worried about looking weak on defense in the 2002 midterms (the first elections after the 9/11 attacks) and the 2004 presidential race. They jumped on President Bush's bandwagon with nary a second thought.
OK, that's not quite fair. Many of them had second thoughts. Yet few had the passion of their convictions. Republicans filibuster all the time now, usually on matters infinitely more trivial than life, death and geopolitics. Why didn't Democrats stick together on this and bring the Senate to a standstill? Was the next election that important? More important than forcing the Senate and the nation to confront history, the future, our international relationships and the implications of an unprecedented pre-emptive war?
Obama got it right back in fall 2002, when he was a state senator planning a run for U.S. Senate. He said an Iraq war would be a "dumb" war
. He wondered why we didn't simply continue to contain Saddam Hussein until he fell into the dustbin of history. "Even a successful war will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences," he said.
He was right. He should remind us about all those miscalculations. He should reassure us that our leaders will never again inflict on us such colossal and tragic misjudgments. He should also do more than edge away from George W. Bush's doctrine of pre-emptive war
, as he did in May in a national security strategy document
that stressed diplomacy and coalitions.
Why not tell us straight out that pre-emption is no longer U.S. policy? That we will strike only if we're under direct threat, and that we'll be much more careful about collecting and evaluating intelligence about what constitutes such a threat?
There are also, of course, the huge issues raised by the way we ran this war once we were in it: the dearth of planning and regional awareness, the massive level of incompetence, the shocking results of ideology run amok. If you can bear it, read Rajiv Chandresakaran's "Imperial Life in the Emerald City
" – or even just an excerpt
or a review of it
Home-schooled 20-somethings with no accounting background chosen to manage Iraq's $13-billion budget. A 24-year-old with no finance experience tasked with re-opening Iraq's stock exchange. Incompetents worrying about smoking prevention while Baghdad burned. Experts pushed out in favor of people whose main qualifications were that they opposed abortion and had voted for Bush.
Please, never again.
Please, never again waste more than $5 billion in taxpayer money
on reconstruction projects that are abandoned or incomplete. That's the current total, according to a new Associated Press review of audits by a government watchdog agency, and it is likely to go higher.
Never again give the world cause to add to the many doubts it now has about the United States, sown by the war and summarized with devastating precision by Anne Applebaum in The Washington Post
. Our reputation for effectiveness is in question, she writes, as are our abilities to organize a coalition, influence the Middle East, think like a global power and care for our veterans. And she describes herself as a supporter of both the war and the surge.
This is fantasy, I know. Nobody likes to look back. Everyone likes to look forward. It's how elections are won. But I for one hope to hear from the president that lessons have been learned about managing and fighting terrorism and wars; about the best ways to change hearts, minds and societies, even if they are slow and gradual; about the emotional and economic tolls of war without end.
Maybe Obama can't guarantee that an Iraq-style debacle will never happen again. But whether he's around for two more years or six, he can certainly assure us that we won't repeat the mistakes of the past on his watch.