Commentary Magazine


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Some Thoughts About Last Night’s Speech

1. The most Obama could say about George W. Bush is that “no one could doubt President Bush’s support for our troops, or his love of country and commitment to our security.” That’s correct; no one could doubt it, which is why there was no need to say it.

The real issue was whether Obama would praise Bush for the surge — one of the most courageous and wise presidential decisions in the modern era and one Bush pushed through over fierce, widespread opposition, including from Obama and his vice president, Joe Biden. But for Obama to praise Bush for the surge would be to admit his own massive error in judgment in opposing it — and a man of Obama’s vanity could not bring himself to do that. So Obama could only say that Bush was well-intentioned rather than right.

As for his own record on Iraq, the Obama administration is now trying to corrupt the historical record, with press secretary Robert Gibbs making assertions that are not only wrong but the opposite of the truth.

2. On Iraq, Obama did say that while our combat mission is ending, “our commitment to Iraq’s future is not.” But you could be forgiven for believing, amid all the talk of page-turning and missions ended and over, that Obama has detached himself from a war he opposed and wants to have nothing more to do with it. He clearly considers it a distraction from his larger ambitions to transform America here at home.

What was also notable in the speech is how Obama — apart from one perfunctory paragraph (he devoted four to the economy) — failed to appropriately acknowledge many of the estimable things that have been achieved by the Iraq war, including deposing a malevolent and aggressive dictator, helping plant a representative (if imperfect) democracy in the heart of the Middle East, and administering a military defeat to al-Qaeda on the ground of its own choosing. Obama hinted at some of this, but it was said without passion or conviction. And we all know why: for Obama, this was a war without purpose, a nihilistic misadventure whose only good result is its end. This is not only wrong; it is a disfigurement of history and a failure to acknowledge what a remarkable thing our combat troops in Iraq achieved.

3. On the most important matter before us, Afghanistan, Obama did substantial damage. The reason can be found in this paragraph:

Within Afghanistan, I have ordered the deployment of additional troops who-under the command of General David Petraeus -are fighting to break the Taliban’s momentum. As with the surge in Iraq, these forces will be in place for a limited time to provide space for the Afghans to build their capacity and secure their own future. But, as was the case in Iraq, we cannot do for Afghans what they must ultimately do for themselves. That’s why we are training Afghan Security Forces and supporting a political resolution to Afghanistan’s problems. And, next July, we will begin a transition to Afghan responsibility. The pace of our troop reductions will be determined by conditions on the ground, and our support for Afghanistan will endure. But make no mistake: this transition will begin – because open-ended war serves neither our interests nor the Afghan people’s.

What Obama did here was not simply to repeat his commitment to the (arbitrary) summer 2011 drawdown date; he underscored and deepened it. The president’s declaration that the pace of troop reductions “will be determined by conditions on the ground” was overwhelmed by Obama’s declaring that our forces will be in place for “a limited time” and that we should “make no mistake: this transition will begin because open-ended war serves neither our interests nor the Afghan people’s.”

This statement occurred within a particular context. In his December 2009 address at West Point, Obama made essentially the same argument — though less emphatically than he did last night.

Many people (including me) underestimated just how harmful was Obama’s declaration that we would begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011. Mentioning that it would be conditions-based was almost completely overlooked by both our friends and our enemies. The message they believed was sent, and which they received, is that America’s commitment is limited and we will leave on time and on schedule, come what may.

Don’t take my word for it; here is what Marine Commandant General James Conway said a week ago about the 2011 deadline: “In some ways, we think right now it’s probably giving our enemy sustenance. We think that he may be saying to himself … ‘Hey, you know, we only have to hold out for so long.’” Conway buttressed his claim by saying that intelligence intercepts suggest that Taliban fighters have been encouraged by the talk of the U.S. beginning to withdraw troops next year.

Knowing all this, Obama not only didn’t attempt to undo his previous error; he doubled down on it. This was an injurious message to send.

The Democratic Party can count several great wartime leaders among its ranks, including Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. John F. Kennedy, while denied the time and opportunities that FDR and Truman had, understood the stakes of the Cold War struggle and spoke with force and eloquence about America’s role in the world. These were admirable leaders, presidents whom our allies could count on and our enemies respected and feared.

In Barack Obama, we have someone very different — a president who is at times more eager to apologize for America than to defend her. He is a man not yet comfortable with his role as commander in chief. Obama views war not in terms of victory; he is above all committed to finding exit ramps.

President Obama has already inflicted enormous damage to our nation; last night he added to the wreckage.