Mission accomplished, peace with honor, or the courage to come home?

As a former speechwriter for politicians, I pity President Obama’s scribes this week. Their assignment is to craft a speech recognizing the last U.S. “combat” troops leaving Iraq. I can feel their frustration at being asked to draft remarks that defy reality.

Here is an opportunity for the President’s word merchants to turn frustration into a positive result for the country.

Some of our most effective presidents did not see their speechwriters as mere wordsmiths, but used the process of crafting a speech as a way to think through whether the ideas they wanted to communicate made sense. President Franklin Roosevelt used his scribe Sam Rosenman as a sounding board, as did Harry Truman with Clark Clifford and George Elsay, and John Kennedy with Ted Sorensen. These collaborations allowed common sense to enter into policy decisions that otherwise might have been dictated by economic, military, or foreign policy doctrine. For these presidents, discussing the rationales for policy with speechwriters was like opening a window in a stuffy room to let in some fresh air.

After one meeting going over a State Department draft of a foreign policy speech, President Truman looked to his political speechwriters and said, “Fellas, can’t we just say what we mean?”

I do not know President Obama’s relationship to his speechwriters, but I hope they would be able to write a memo such as this:

To: President Obama
From: Speechwriting team
Re: What to say about Iraq and Afghanistan

Concerning your speech on our combat troop withdrawal from Iraq, what tone do you want to take: celebration, validation, or self-congratulation?

We recommend:

Against taking the approach of the last administration by claiming “mission accomplished.” You were elected because the American people are not buying that line.

Against telling the American public the truth – most Americans will not believe you, and the rest will not want to be reminded. As president, you are expected to inspire, not depress people.

It would be bad politics for you to state plainly what the rest of the world knows. Our invasion led to the deaths of over 100,000 Iraqi civilians and the destruction of Iraq’s hospitals, schools, utilities, and industries. Over 4,000 American lives were lost, and tens of thousands more Americans returned less than whole both mentally and physically. Toward what goal did we cause all of this? Our government was determined to remove from power a dictator who was the only non-Israeli head of state in the Middle East that the United States could count on NOT TO ALLOW AL QUAEDA TO OPERATE IN HIS COUNTRY. This is too absurd and too dark for Americans.

Against using your phrase “we have kept our promise” to remove all combat troops from Iraq by the end of 2011, leaving 50,000 troops only to secure the peace. This will surely come back to bite you in the near future. Your “promise kept” declaration will ring as hollow as President Nixon’s contention that he achieved “peace with honor” in Vietnam in January 1973, at the end of the Paris peace talks. The war dragged on for two more years until Congress finally shut off funding over the objections of Republican President Gerald Ford.

We are leaving Iraq a physically and economically broken country, seething with violent political and religious divisions. Iraq will be mired in civil war for many years to come. If you leave 50,000 troops as a security force, then sometime in the near future you will have to make a decision whether to allow Americans to witness our troops slaughtered in the line of duty as the peace-keepers or to return our combat troops to Iraq – and thus break your promise.

We recommend you simply tell Americans you are “ending our involvement in Iraq,” without debating the war’s value.

You could say,

“No matter what you think about why we were there, or what we have accomplished, my job as president is to do what is best for America. We cannot dictate the future of Iraq. Sometimes it takes more courage for a leader to say when it is time to come home. It is time. I am bringing all of our military home.”

Another question, Mr. President: is it necessary for you to address Afghanistan in this speech? We believe it is.

We recommend you use this occasion to recalibrate our policy in Afghanistan to comport with reality. Tell the American public you will “bring all American troops home from Afghanistan, focus more on the places where al Qaeda is actually located, and redirect our efforts to win more cooperation from other governments in the fight against terrorism.”

We now have more than 90,000 American troops in Afghanistan, and more are on the way, ignoring daily signals that their fight is meaningless. If our fight in Afghanistan is about destroying al Qaeda, we are looking in the wrong place. Craig Whitlock reports in the Washington Post this week that “an analysis of 76,000 classified U.S. military reports posted by the website WikiLeaks underscores the extent to which Osama bin Laden and his network have become an afterthought in the war.” If there is any al Qaeda activity, it is along the Pakistan border, according to U.S. reports.

We cannot force the Afghans to fight the Taliban any more than we could make the South Vietnamese fight their neighbors to the north. As Elizabeth Bumiller reports in the New York Times this week, U.S. officials in Afghanistan admit that in the next 15 months the U.S. would “have to recruit and train 141,000 new soldiers and police officers – more than the current size of the Afghan army – to meet President Obama’s ambitious goals for getting Afghan forces to fight the war on their own.” At the same time, these officials report “attrition rates in some (Afghan) units of nearly 50%.” This sounds more and more like Vietnamization – President Nixon’s failed plan to win the war by getting the South Vietnamese to fight.

To most Americans who remember the Vietnam War, the image that symbolizes our withdrawal from Vietnam is that of Americans and South Vietnamese on the roof of the American embassy in Saigon desperately reaching for the chance to board the last ride out.

It was anything but peace with honor. We do not want you to be the cause of similar scenes in Baghdad and Kabul.

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