Mr. President, the Long War Won't End in 2010

At first glance, President Obama's speech on Iraq was heartening. While he did not credit his predecessor or election opponent for implementing and championing the surge that saved the war effort, the strategy he vehemently opposed as a candidate, Obama praised the success of our soldiers and Marines in some of his most appreciative and admiring language yet -- and that's enough. He called Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. Raymond Odierno "two of our finest generals," and to be sure, they most certainly are. Though belatedly, he also recognized the bravery of everyday Iraqis who have fought against dictatorship and struggled to establish self-rule and consensual governance for years.

All this and more is good. It is high time for a deep national exhale on Iraq: through all the years of carnage and uncertainty, our military stuck it out and now might just end up leaving behind something once considered miraculous. But we should not get ahead of ourselves -- and I fear some of President Obama's statements point in that direction.

It is a good thing that the war, as we once knew it, is wrapping up. But Mr. Obama's nomenclature is unsettling. "Today, I have come to speak to you about how the war in Iraq will end," the new commander-in-chief told Marines soon to be deployed to Afghanistan. "Let me just say this as plainly as I can: By August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end," he concluded.

This smacks of President Bush's similar mistake, declaring an end to "major combat operations" on May 1, 2003. In Bush's case, an inaccurate assessment was made of what was happening at the time. In Obama's case, he is predicting what will happen 18 months from now.

If there is one lesson President Obama can learn from his predecessor, it is this: we do not have the final say on when this war will "end," in the sense that we want it to end. If you recall, the earliest and most principled advocates of destroying Saddam's regime -- Rumsfeld, Perle, Wolfowitz, Feith, Bolton, etc. -- all opposed a long-term occupation of Iraq, contrary to conventional wisdom and pop-culture caricature.

They felt, correctly I believe, that sending Paul Bremer to govern Iraq would be counterproductive. If it had been up to them alone, the transition to Iraqi sovereignty and self-policing would have happened much earlier. If it had been up to all of us, the war would have "ended" six years ago -- sometime in the days or weeks following the toppling of Hussein's statue in Baghdad's Firdos Square. If we had our way, April 2003 would have been the last time an American fired his weapon in Iraq. We might have our preferences, but that does not always translate into concrete reality.