Dear Mr. President:
Your speech Monday night carried stirring visions of the change you want to bring to Iraq and the Middle East. What it lacked was more important: a clear recognition of the ever-widening gap between those uplifting visions and the explosive conditions produced in Iraq by what has become a self-defeating U.S. occupation policy. Your words lacked the minimal dose of honesty a leader owes his nation in times of crisis.
I write as someone who has supported regime change in Iraq far longer than you or your aides. I have given your policies the benefit of the doubt in some measure because of my long-standing opposition to the genocidal rule of Saddam Hussein and my sympathy for the broader reform goals you enunciate for the region. The lack of realism in Monday's speech and in the draft U.N. Security Council resolution on Iraq that your administration presented a few hours earlier make such agnosticism next to impossible now.
Both documents betray a willingness to see the world as you would like it to be rather than as it is, and a readiness to hope that the gap goes unnoticed or unexamined. With all respect, sir, that is not leadership. Leaders address inconvenient reality and then seek explicit and reasoned support from the nation for dealing with it.
Your recent vacillation on policies -- unilateralist one day, U.N.-centered the next -- suggests you are letting yourself be pulled in different directions by putative allies and your aides in daily, desperate improvisation. By letting King Abdullah of Jordan and other Sunni leaders poison your view of what Shiite rule in Iraq would mean, you leave the impression that you had not thought through your promise of democracy for Iraq before going to war.
This steadily wavering image is at the core of the decline in your approval ratings. Americans stop supporting wars not because of body counts alone but because they become convinced their leaders do not know what they are doing. They then stop supporting the leaders.
Your talented speechwriters built this address around a five-step "plan." May I offer five realities I think you slighted but must still address if you are to dispel rising skepticism, including mine?
* The decision to concentrate power in the hands of the Coalition Provisional Authority rather than establish a provisional Iraqi government a year ago has had disastrous results. As Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani and others have said, that step "turned an army of liberation into an army of occupation" resented across Iraq. Liberation was successful, and ousting Hussein was a justifiable action. Denying power to Iraqis once he was gone was not. You must face that.
* Continuing to insist that a real transfer of sovereignty will occur on June 30 to what is at this point an unknown and untested Iraqi leadership is damaging your credibility. That entity would have power over U.S. troops and actions in Iraq if your assertion were true. Tell the American people and the world what you really intend to happen.
* Abandon the pretense that all goes well in the mission of U.N. negotiator Lakhdar Brahimi, who has spent most of his recent mission in Baghdad hunkered down inside the U.S.-protected "Green Zone." Your aides let you tell the nation Monday night that Brahimi would announce an interim government "this week," even though Baghdad sources say his choice of a Shiite to be prime minister has run into serious opposition. Brahimi's spokesman, Ahmed Fawzi, said on Monday that his boss is as much as a week behind his May 31 deadline. You should have known that before you spoke.
* NATO allies will not take up new burdens in Iraq while you are in the middle of a reelection campaign. Why would countries such as France and Germany risk that? Preemptive war may well be justified. But there are costs for firing the first shot. Accept the fact that you will now pay a price and proceed accordingly.
* Most important, move away from the obsession with secrecy that is a cancer at the center of your administration. Sept. 11, 2001, did change the world, and the Geneva Conventions do look outdated in places. Engage the nation and then the world in the debate about the changes -- and sacrifices -- that need to be made in fighting a war against terrorists. Don't confine that discussion to secret memos and directives.
Those directives and your own great confidence in the paramilitary warriors of the intelligence world helped bring you the Abu Ghraib scandal. You need the nation's engaged, informed support to rescue Iraq -- and yourself, Mr. President.