In a debate with Hillary Clinton in January 2008, now-President Barack Obama said about ending the war in Iraq:
I will offer a clear contrast as somebody who never supported this war, thought it was a bad idea. I don't want to just end the war, but I want to end the mindset that got us into war in the first place.
That's the kind of leadership I'm going to provide as president of the United States.
President Obama did end the Iraq war. But ending the mindset that got us into war remains a work in progress.
We continue to experience near-misses. We were hours away from bombing Syria when Obama relented to pressure to seek Congressional authorization - and then, facing near-certain defeat on an authorization of force vote, chose diplomacy instead. More recently, a majority of senators sponsored a bill designed to blow up US diplomacy with Iran, threatening to put us on a path to war, before public and presidential pressure forced these senators to back down.
In his State of the Union address tonight, Obama has a very straightforward opportunity to help end the mindset that got us into war, by talking about the necessity of providing the funding to care for the veterans from a decade of war.
Part of the mindset that got us into war was that we underestimated the cost of war by not considering the future cost of caring for veterans. If we want to avoid that mistake in the future, we should resist the temptation to look away from the cost now. Part of changing the mindset that leads to war is accepting that starting a war means undertaking a lifetime commitment to the people who serve in it. If marriage is a big deal, war is a bigger deal. We can never divorce a war. We can end a war, but we'll never stop paying for it during the lifetimes of the war's veterans.
Obama has the bully pulpit tonight, and he can start the conversation. Stars and Stripes reports:
Veterans groups said they want more than just a mention. At the top of their list is the recent budget deal that included a 1 percent reduction in annual military retirement cost-of-living adjustments for working-age veterans, a move that will cost some career servicemembers tens of thousands of dollars in future income.
But the White House has been mum on the issue, offering only support for the overall budget deal and the fiscal stability it provides to all military programs.
"This would be a great opportunity for their perspective on the issue," said Alexander Nicholson, legislative director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "It's the perfect platform to draw attention to the problem."
He noted than in 2010, the president made just a brief mention of repealing the "don't ask, don't tell" law in the annual address, but the prominence of the speech instantly elevated the importance of the issue. Congress voted to abolish the law 11 months later.
"Even just a mention in the State of the Union can shift priorities," he said.
IAVA leaders also hope the president will address advance funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs, the veterans claims backlog, improvements to the GI Bill and military suicide prevention.
None of those issues have grabbed national headlines recently, and it would be surprising for them to get more than a brief mention in the speech.
It's true that these issues haven't "grabbled national headlines recently." But that could very easily change, because these issues have a vehicle - Sen. Bernie Sanders' veterans' benefits bill - and that bill will grab national headlines as soon as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid calls it for a vote. Sanders' bill links the broader veterans' agenda to the military pension fix, and that means that holding a vote on the bill definitely grab would national headlines for these issues. Consider how votes in the Senate on extending unemployment insurance have grabbed national headlines: That will happen for the veterans' agenda if Reid calls a vote on the Sanders bill.
The Sanders bill is widely supported by veterans organizations, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. AFL-CIO officials say that the Sanders veterans' benefits bill also is supported by the AFL-CIO.
The Brattleboro Reformer reported last week that Sanders, a Vermont independent, said that Reid had indicated to him that he would like the vote on the bill to occur as soon as possible, which may be as soon as this week.
Sanders has said that he expects to have support from the entire Senate Democratic caucus and hopes to have Republican support as well, because many of the bill's provisions originally were proposed by Republicans.
Whether Senate Republicans support it or not, a Senate vote is a national news story. If enough Republicans support it, the story is that the Senate passed the bill. If too many Republicans oppose, the story is that Senate Republicans are blocking the veterans' agenda. President Obama states his support for the Sanders bill, that's going to put it near the top of the Senate's to-do list.
All that needs to happen now is a little more public clamor for doing right by our veterans. You can add to the public clamor here.