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What Obama Didn't Say 

Vietnam's shadow looms large as America seems poised to get drawn back into Iraq

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Recently, NPR's Terry Gross interviewed Tim Arango on her show Fresh Air. Arango, chief of the New York Times' bureau in Baghdad, is of the opinion that the unraveling of Iraq is entirely the result of George W. Bush's reckless invasion and occupation. His list of reasons is long and convincing: the phony excuse for invading; the decision to fire the old Iraqi army; the decision to show progress by buying off the Sunnis (which the likes of Sen. John "Bomb, Bomb" McCain refers to as "winning"); promising the Sunnis a place in the new Iraq Shiite government but failing to deliver; the corrupt and incompetent Maliki administration; and finally, the failure of the new Iraqi army. After some $90 billion spent, courtesy of American taxpayers, the Iraqi army was touted as ready and waiting for a chance — which turned out to be a chance to turn and run.

Gross asked Arango to comment on President Obama's performance. He observed that, after 2011, Obama prematurely took a hands-off stance to protect his preferred narrative that Iraq had been left in good shape. But Arango also observed that, without a lot more spending and ground troops sent back into harm's way, more attentiveness wouldn't have made much difference.

What Obama might have done, Arango suggested, was to put pressure on the Maliki government to make good on promises the Bush administration had made to the Sunnis. But then, in a resigned tone of voice, he again expressed doubt that such pressure would have made much difference.

Obama's strategy speech last week might have bought him time, but it wasn't the speech that the American public needed to hear. We needed a blunter speech, a speech that actually confronted the grim defining circumstances and the historical realities. We needed a speech that recalled the wisdom of George Kennan, the American diplomat who associated "containment" more with diplomacy. He might have acknowledged the insights of foreign policy expert Andrew Bacevich, who recognized that America's proclaimed post-World War II "world order" has been based largely on propaganda. It should have gone something like this:

My fellow Americans: Because in 2003 America invaded a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, while allowing bin Laden to escape, we have spent billions every year for more than a decade, and watched as several thousand Americans died. We were told there were WMDs, which it turns out, didn't exist. We didn't intend to create Shiite hegemony from Tehran to Baghdad, thereby inviting Sunni reaction from Syria, but that's exactly what we did. We told ourselves that we had won over the Sunnis when we merely had just bought them off. And we never considered the true impacts of the military's pet euphemism, "collateral damage." For example, the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have fled their homeland and the many thousands more killed.

America, we must finally accept, cannot effectively moderate centuries-old religious conflicts. We can apply economic pressure. We can provide humanitarian aid. We can work within alliances to impose sanctions and offer incentives. We can, and will, track down and eliminate those guilty of committing unspeakable, barbaric acts.

Could we be doing more? Maybe we could have bought some time had I sent more young people back into harm's way — requiring America to spend even more billions. And let me bring these expenses into sharper perspective: Taken together, Iraq and Afghanistan annually have cost America more than the sum total of the entire budgets of any number of federal agencies. As recently as 2011, money spent in Iraq and Afghanistan equalled the total funding of HUD, the IRS, Veterans Affairs, the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Agriculture.

So, my fellow Americans, here is our dilemma: Should we once again use American military might, with all its attendant costs, to try to settle disputes that have been festering since about the 8th century — made all the worse by colonialism — or should we begin rebuilding at home, while continuing to strengthen those "old Europe" alliances my predecessor dismissed? Apparently my detractors favor the former. I don't. I see America's strength first at home, and our influence abroad, while supported by a military force second to none, relying largely on diplomacy.

Obama couldn't deliver this speech for the same reasons that Richard Nixon couldn't deliver a similar speech in 1969. Had Nixon "declared victory and gone home," he would have been denounced as "dishonoring the troops" and losing a war. So we stayed in Vietnam for another seven years. I recall Henry Kissinger once saying that we stayed in Vietnam to avoid being humiliated.

Obama is enough of a student of history to know foreign policy should not be conducted primarily to save face. Still, all the things he left unsaid leave me afraid that America may be looking at a version of the same dismal scenario today in the Middle East. ♦

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