Much like the man who gave it, President Obama’s speech on Iraq was many things to many people. It was a paean to Americans in uniform, a bone tossed to Bush-nostalgic conservatives, a placeholder for Afghanistan hawks, a pacifier for the anti-war Left, and, clumsily, an acknowledgment of Americans worried about the economy. Much like the man who gave it, the speech was too irresolute to signify anything other than America’s ambivalence on the world stage. According to Obama, the Iraq war was at once a mistake and a success. In Afghanistan, we will both fight and leave (as if he has not given a second’s thought to the damage his confusion on this point has already done). For all the president’s talk of “turn[ing] the page,” he is stuck in the extended paradox of his own contradictions.
Not surprisingly, the most revealing part of the speech came in the form of a seemingly negligible aside, not a strategically inconclusive talking point. Obama said, “In an age without surrender ceremonies, we must earn victory through the success of our partners and the strength of our own nation.” Reread the first part of that sentence. What reason is there to think we have passed into an age without surrender ceremonies? Barack Obama believes this because he assumes that mankind is now so modern and reasonable that we are outside the vast breadth of history. Nations will never formally go to war again and will not get caught up in pre-21st-century anachronisms like “victory” and “surrender.” For Barack Obama, an old-fashioned victory is as quaint as a duel at 20 paces. This unjustified optimism is not a historically new phenomenon among academics and has invited exploitation by tyrants throughout the modern age. (We need only look to the post–Cold War gambits of Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein to disprove the contention.)
To wit: the single mention of the word “victory” in a speech acknowledging the successful conclusion of a remarkable American military effort came in a bid to redefine the term as a universalist construct. If only the world’s bad actors would agree to do the same, this would prove to be a speech for the ages.