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Shouldn't winning the war be Mr. Obama's top mission?

Thursday, September 2, 2010; A22

ENDANGERED Democrats beseech President Obama to focus on the problems at home. Republicans smelling blood attack him if he talks about anything but the recession. His own aides promise, from time to time, that his mission will consist of "jobs, jobs, jobs."

In fact, no president can focus exclusively on just one thing, and in any case there's not all that much Mr. Obama can do right now about "jobs, jobs, jobs." So we sympathize with the dilemma that gave birth to the mixed-message presidential address from the Oval Office on Tuesday night. But we worry about it, too.

The president sought to assure Iraqis that the United States will remain a committed partner -- but he reiterated that "all U.S. troops will leave by the end of next year." He said that "no challenge is more essential to our security than our fight against al-Qaeda" and vowed to prevent Afghanistan "from again serving as a base for terrorists" -- but promised to begin withdrawing troops next August, because "open-ended war serves neither our interests nor the Afghan people's." He insisted that "America intends to sustain and strengthen our leadership in this young century" -- but then explained that "that effort must begin within our own borders."

Of course it is true, as Mr. Obama has said many times, that the United States cannot be a leader overseas if it does not sustain a strong economy at home. But a president leading a nation at war doesn't have the luxury of deciding that the domestic piece of that equation is now his "most urgent task." Mr. Obama might wish that he could pour all of his energies into invigorating manufacturing, reducing dependence on foreign oil, nurturing entrepreneurship and improving education, all of which he talked about Tuesday night. He might wish not to be a wartime president at all. But, as he has said, al-Qaeda has not given him, or the country, that choice.

That's why his insistence on deadlines is discordant. Last year he conducted an exhaustive review of U.S. policy in Afghanistan and concluded, perhaps reluctantly, that U.S. national security demanded an escalation of U.S. military efforts -- that defeat in Afghanistan would be so dangerous to U.S. security that he had to put thousands more American lives at risk. If the Afghan army has not progressed as much as he hopes by next August, will the potential costs of defeat be any less? And if the consolidation of a democratic Iraq opposed to Islamist terrorism and safely outside of Iran's orbit is in the U.S. interest, why would he foreclose the possibility of some continuing U.S. military role, should an elected Iraqi government deem it necessary for its survival? If the United States is under attack, it must fight until the danger has eased, not until it decides that fighting has become too costly.

At the conclusion of his address, Mr. Obama said that U.S. troops "are the steel in our ship of state" who "give us confidence that our course is true." But that's only half-right. The troops may well be "the steel," and Mr. Obama was more than justified in paying tribute to their accomplishments and sacrifices, in his speech and earlier Tuesday at Fort Bliss, Tex. But the troops don't set the nation's course. Resolve and confidence have to come from the top.

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