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A Note to the President

What you might say tomorrow on Iraq.

10:00 AM, Aug 30, 2010 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Mr. President,

A Note to the President

U.S. General Raymond T. Odierno with President Barack Obama.

When you speak to the troops tomorrow at Fort Bliss, and to the nation tomorrow night from the Oval Office, you speak, of course, as the president. As our president.

You won't be speaking—not in these settings—as a once (and perhaps future) candidate for president. Nor as the leader of the Democratic Party. Nor as a critic of your predecessor's foreign policy. You are all of those things, of course—but it is not in those capacities that you speak to the troops at Fort Bliss, and to the nation from the Oval Office.

So my sincere hope—and it is sincere, with no political agenda (for what it's worth, I think following the advice I'm about to give would help you politically)—is that you don't begin your remarks tomorrow night, as you did your weekly address Saturday, by taking credit for fulfilling a campaign promise. Your oath as president was to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States," and it is in that capacity that you now make foreign policy judgments, not as a former candidate keeping well- or ill-considered campaign promises.

When you speak tomorrow, you might also do what you neglected to do Saturday: You might praise General Ray Odierno, who, with General David Petraeus, turned the war in Iraq around in an amazing feat of generalship, and then did a terrific job of managing, under your direction, a delicate drawdown and transfer of responsibility to our Iraqi partners.

I trust you will also—as you didn't Saturday—praise the Iraqis who fought and died alongside us. And I trust you will—by contrast with Saturday—spend more time praising our servicemen and women for their performance and their valor, than assuring them that we stand ready to help them overcome challenges when they come home (as we of course do).

And I hope you would also explain that, whatever one's views of the decision to go to war, we now have a moral obligation and strategic opportunity to help a free and democratic Iraq succeed. This means emphasizing that we expect to work closely with Iraq in the future, and that we are open to stationing troops there. It means not repeating the vulgar and counter-productive emphasis in your Saturday address—"But the bottom line is this: the war is ending. Like any sovereign, independent nation, Iraq is free to chart its own course. And by the end of next year, all our troops will be home."

Of course Iraq is free to chart its own course—as is South Korea, and for that matter Afghanistan or Pakistan or, say, Mexico. But in speaking of those nations, American presidents usually express a commitment to working with them to help them in a variety of ways to help them on a course that is good for them and good for our national security. It was encouraging that you said in your Brian Williams interview yesterday, "we're going to be … a long term partner within Iraq." It would be good to elaborate on that tomorrow, and to explain that surely, if we can work out an arrangement for advisory and training forces to stay in Iraq, that would be very much worth considering, and shouldn't be ruled out by you now—because of a campaign promise. If we have an opportunity, in your presidency, to help make Iraq a success and an ally, shouldn't we take it?

My bottom line is this, Mr. President: When you speak tomorrow, speak for America.   

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