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The Limits of Moderation

David Brooks, like many of us, is trying to see how the requirements of fighting a war mesh with what he generously refers to as Obama’s “calibrated prudence.” Brooks rightly notes that Obama at West Point was largely about “emphasizing limits — limited time, limited cost, limited troops. He didn’t talk about the moral atrocities of the Taliban or our obligation to make life better there.” But our enemies most likely aren’t much impressed with calibration. Brooks, with characteristic understatement, remarks: “I don’t know how this reserve will register among the Afghans, the Taliban, American people or our troops. The soldiers’ commitment can’t be limited because their sacrifice might be total. Are they supposed to fight in a calibrated spirit?” And that’s what’s got so many conservatives who really want to support the war and get behind the president scratching their heads. How’s this going to work?

War is different than domestic policy, of course. It was the promise (some would say, illusion) of moderation and calibration in domestic policy that convinced many voters that Obama was not some wide-eyed radical bent on reshaping the country. Unfortunately, that moderation hasn’t manifested itself on the domestic front. There is no sign of modesty or humility as to what government should attempt or is able to achieve. Run car companies, “create jobs,” take over health care, regulate carbon emissions — it’s all just a matter of rounding up the votes. There seems to be no recognition that government is an imperfect instrument or that much of this will turn to regulatory mush, retarding growth, running up a mound of crippling debt, and strangling economic dynamism. No, when it comes to domestic matters, it’s full steam ahead . . . er . . . to the Left, actually.

But wars and war-making aren’t like domestic horse-trading, or they shouldn’t be. Half a loaf sometimes is worse than the whole thing, and trying to patch together a wartime speech as if you were concocting an omnibus spending bill (a little bit for everyone and not too much for anyone) is not wise. And speaking of compromises: where’d that 2011 date come from, by the way? In all the leaks and discussions, we never heard about a transition date. Was that simply a poll-tested compromise or the product of some real analysis? Someone should find out when that got thrown into the mix.

Much as the president resists the notion, wars are all-in efforts. It still isn’t clear that the president understands and believes that. As a consequence, he won’t be able to project that he does. Along with Brooks, we’ll have to wait and see whether the president figures this out and maintains resolve when casualties go up and things don’t go well (as we know will occur in any major military undertaking). If Obama can pry himself away from his own peevishness, he would do well to examine his predecessor’s performance in this regard. It’s a good example of the sort of steely resolve we’ll need once again from the commander in chief.


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