THE BLOG
03/27/2011 08:24 pm ET | Updated May 27, 2011

An Honest Speech to the American People

Having written my fair share of speeches for secretaries of state and contributed to presidential ones, I'd love to hear President Obama give the following speech tomorrow night.

My fellow Americans. I want to speak to you tonight honestly and
directly about an issue of great importance.

America is a great country; but we are currently stuck in the Middle
East like some kind of modern day Gulliver tied up by tiny tribes whose
interests are often not our own, and by our own illusions of power,
which have often gotten us into trouble in this part of the world. Our
dilemma is clear: we are bogged down in a volatile region, which is
critical to our national interests, but we can't fix it nor can we walk
away.

And these commitments come at a time when we can least afford it. Our
economic recovery is fragile; our future is clouded by too much debt;
too much dependence on hydro-carbons and not enough political will in
either major party to begin to take steps to make matters right.

At present, we are involved in three wars -- the first since our own war
of independence fought by an all volunteer army -- where victory is
measured not by can we win; but by when can we leave. Extrication -- how
to get out -- is an appropriate theme for these conflicts because it's
highly arguable whether it was wise to get into them (Afghanistan, Iraq,
Libya) and stay with them as we did in the first place.

Two were my predecessor's wars; but I now own two as well. I said during
my campaign for the presidency that Afghanistan was the good war, the
necessary one and that we had vital national interests there. That's
true; and I chose to double down in 2009 with a kind of Afghan surge
because I believed it. I also understood that no untested Democratic
President could have survived had he called for even a gradual draw
down.

But while on the military side, we have made great progress, these
struggles -- like Iraq and Libya -- don't have military solutions. And
it's highly dubious that the political outcome is going to be a happy
one.

The chance of an Afghan government emerging that's credible, accountable
and centralized enough with military and security forces to control and
govern the country are slim to none.

And frankly, I have no answer to the vital challenge of how to stop the
Taliban or al-Qaeda in Pakistan or the Pakistani government or
intelligence services from undermining our goals across the border.

On reflection, I now understand that 9/11 wasn't a result of a bunch of
guys running around Tora Bora with AK-47s; but a consequence of 19 guys
who got into the US illegally; trained at our flight schools illegally;
and who penetrated our aviation security system with impunity.

These attacks on the Towers and Pentagon could have been planned
anywhere; in fact, the last two terrorist near misses in Detroit and
Times Square came not from Afghanistan but from Pakistan and Yemen. We
will try with our own counter-terrorism measures to take the fight to
the enemy and to protect the homeland; but we simply cannot be
everywhere. Al-Qaeda s much weakened; but still quiet capable. Future
attempts against the United States are almost inevitable.

As for Libya, I never intended to intervene militarily. It is true that
in many respects my foreign policy has come to resemble George W. Bush --
in Iraq, Afghanistan; Guantanamo; the war against terror (we don't
really call it that).

But frankly, I was suspicious of the freedom agenda, not because I
don't like freedom but because it was too simplistic, open-ended and
potentially committing for the United States. I also know that we have a
somewhat contradictory view of people who win elections fairly that we
don't like, such as Hamas. I'm not sure even now what I'm going when the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt wins a large percentage in the
parliamentary elections. Will we talk to them?

Still faced with Arab Spring racing across the Middle East and the fact
that Qadhafi was about to inflict a cruel winter of massacres on the
people of Benghazi, I simply couldn't stand by. So I developed a
complicated strategy to get buy in from the UN Security Council, NATO,
the Arab League designed to pretend that the US wasn't in charge and
that genuinely others were shouldering the burden of involvement to stop
Qadhafi.

But to do that I had to construct a couple of fictions in order to get
others to support us. That fiction was the notion that our goal was
only to protect civilians. Our real goal -- unstated of course -- is
regime change. Without Qadhafi's departure from Libya, or defeat, the
Libyan people will never be free from his capacity to harm them; and
neither will we.

Our problem, of course, is that there's a considerable gap between this
objective and the means we have to achieve it. We hope that the no fly
zone plus gives us the capacity to weaken the Libyan regime and empower
the opposition so that they can defeat him. How long this may take; what
the consequences are fro the future of Libya; who the rebels are and
what kind of government they want, I cannot say. I do hope for the best
and am counting on the fact that the United States will not have to bear
the primary burden of this campaign. Though should it go badly -- south,
so to speak -- I don't know how we could stay out.

My fellow Americans, we are witnessing profound changes throughout the
Arab world. And we want to support truly peaceful democratic change. But
to quote a renowned Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, America can't
manage history. Nor can we use our military to support opposition
forces everywhere. What happens in view of what I've done in Libya if
the mullahcracy in Tehran or the Assad regime in Syria starts killing
their own people in large numbers, I can't say right now.

But I can say two things with certainty. First, by the end of this year
we will have withdrawn all combat forces from Iraq. Second, while I
would like to set a target date of 2014 (and stick by it) for a similar
exit from Afghanistan, I will not commit to that now. Whatever doubts I
have about the probable success of our mission there, we must see it
through: that means an Afghan central government with enough military
and security forces to be able to stand up on their own.

In democracies, Niebuhr also said that we are likely to find only
proximate solutions to insoluble problems. I believe that. Politics
and the complexities of most issues almost always prevent perfect
solutions. Whether it's the middle east or reducing the deficit, the
answers lie not in the perfect but most likely in the good. I close
with the words of another American president, John F. Kennedy, who
reaffirmed Niebuhr's philosophy by once describing himself as an
idealist without illusion. That's where America must be. Never giving
up on the hope that the world and America can be a better place. But as
we go about the business of improving it, let's do so with our eyes wide
open.