THE BLOG
07/30/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Op-Ed Writing Tips For Senator McCain

Dear Senator,
I teach an op-ed writing seminar and heard about your troubles landing your Op-Ed at the rag of those liberal rascals, the New York Times. May I offer you some suggestions?

First, you need a better lede. Why are you quoting Petraeus up top when you are the one who is trying out for the part of commander in chief? Give us something punchy -- summon your inner Maureen Dowd. And tell us: What would you do differently in Iraq? Say it up top and be specific. Get readers and morning commuters to spill their coffee, what I call the "shock and awe" lede (ok, maybe a bad pun).

Second, you're too vague. "Considerable hard work remains to consolidate our fragile gains?" Come on, you can do better than that -- stop stating the obvious! Do you mean hard work by us or by the Iraqis? And is "hard work" a bad euphemism for blood and treasure? I'm confused.

Third, OK we get it, you support(ed) the surge; your opponent didn't. That's not news, senator. But your argument is not intellectually honest. You say the Iraqis have met all but three of their political benchmarks -- but you leave out the fact that an oil revenue-sharing law is one of those unmet benchmarks. That's a little like reconstituting 11 of the 12 players of last year's Los Angeles Lakers but leaving out Kobe Bryant. You also fail to recognize other factors, besides the surge of 20,000 troops, that may have contributed to the reduction in violence: Sadr's truce, ethnically cleansed neighborhoods, the Sunni Awakening, etc. Plus you say up top that the gains made have been "fragile," which implies that they have not been significant. Which is it? I'm confused.

Fourth, your attack of Senator Obama sounds petty. Phrases like "perhaps he is unaware" and "he mangles the evidence" sound like those of a first-year law student or a House of Commons rabble-rouser, not a serious candidate for president. It's also disingenuous. He does not, as you imply, say that the Iraqi prime minister endorsed his timetable.

Fifth, OK you finally start to make sense about 400 words into the piece, where you write:

I have also said that any draw-downs must be based on a realistic assessment of conditions on the ground, not on an artificial timetable crafted for domestic political reasons. This is the crux of my disagreement with Senator Obama.

OK, but what are those conditions on the ground? If we've made real progress in Iraq, why not begin to pull out more brigades, as the Iraqis and Americans are pleading for us to do? Also this notion of "artificial timetable" is just ridiculous. If David Petraeus, who for all intents and purposes has become a divine-like figure, handed you an exit strategy, would that be an artificial timetable or a natural one? Or consider your own words: "I expect to welcome home most of our troops from Iraq by the end of my first term in office, in 2013." Isn't that an artificial timetable crafted for domestic political reasons? (after all, removing the troops would help you get reelected in 2013, wouldn't it?) I'm confused.

Sixth, your next two paragraphs contradict each other, you realize that don't you? (Also, can you get some new copy editors or proofreaders, senator? I counted more than a dozen typos on the foreign briefings on your campaign website). One minute Obama is raising the "mission accomplished" banner, which implies -- yup-victory. The next sentence you say "he never talks about winning the war -- only ending it." So is he a premature victory-monger or a defeatist? Again, I'm confused.

Finally, and here is where you sound like an over-the-hill out-of-touch curmudgeon. You call for basically a status quo posture in Iraq. You write: "I will continue implementing a proven counterinsurgency strategy not only in Iraq but also in Afghanistan with the goal of creating stable, secure, self-sustaining democratic allies." But many military analysts, including Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations, say that Iraq no longer requires a counterinsurgency strategy so much as it does a peacekeeping operation ala the Balkans. What are your thoughts on that? Your lines look like they were lifted from a speech given in 2006 (we can only assume you didn't cut and paste them, given your lack of computer skills).

In sum, as the editors pointed out correctly, your piece lacks any sort of cohesion, clarity, and plan of action, like Obama's earlier op-ed. You say nothing of the status of forces debate, the refugee crisis, the threat of a military coup, the presence of Iran -- all you do is genuflect before the military brass. You might try submitting your op-ed somewhere else -- like one of those pro-military newsletters. I'm sure they would accept it.

Yours,
Lionel