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Contentions

RE: Deadlines

The insistence on imposing deadlines on wars, as I argued yesterday, is one of Obama’s most destructive contributions to the war against jihadists. (Declining to call them “jihadists” is another.) Even the Washington Post editors picked up on this dangerous tendency, one that was much in evidence Tuesday night and provoked much of the angst on the right:

The president sought to assure Iraqis that the United States will remain a committed partner — but he reiterated that “all U.S. troops will leave by the end of next year.” He said that “no challenge is more essential to our security than our fight against al-Qaeda” and vowed to prevent Afghanistan “from again serving as a base for terrorists” — but promised to begin withdrawing troops next August, because “open-ended war serves neither our interests nor the Afghan people’s.” He insisted that “America intends to sustain and strengthen our leadership in this young century” — but then explained that “that effort must begin within our own borders.”

The editors then offer some wise words of council to a president who, as the New York Times aptly reported, is indifferent and/or uncomfortable with embracing the role of commander in chief:

Of course it is true, as Mr. Obama has said many times, that the United States cannot be a leader overseas if it does not sustain a strong economy at home. But a president leading a nation at war doesn’t have the luxury of deciding that the domestic piece of that equation is now his “most urgent task.” … He might wish not to be a wartime president at all. But, as he has said, al-Qaeda has not given him, or the country, that choice.

It is not as if every sentence of every speech is dovish or neo-isolationist. But we have seen the pattern before — a step forward, and then a step back, never willing to shirk his dovish inclinations. Some eager conservatives got very jazzed by the Nobel Prize speech or by the infusion of 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. And they were right to be pleased by the latter. But Obama inevitably returns to form — the West Point speech was followed by the dreadful 60 Minutes interview in which he doubled-down on the troop withdrawal. And this year, conservatives were back pleading with Obama to revoke the troop deadline that months earlier some had downplayed because, they opined, what really mattered was the troop increase. But what really matters is what the president does and says.

As I previously pointed out, Obama’s talk to the troops at Fort Bliss actually made a huge concession to the Iraq war supporters: the war made us more secure. But in the Oval Office, with prepared text (we were told the president spoke “without notes” at Fort Bliss), those were words he dared not utter. Had he meant to really “turn the page,” to shed his campaign persona, and to embrace fully the role of wartime commander in a war in defense of our civilization, he would have explained just that — that we fight these wars to keep us safe. And that task is not one subject to arbitrary timelines.

A final note: it would also help if Obama did not transmute every action into a crass political opportunity. As Hotline reports:

[H]is second Oval Office address may be remembered as vividly as his predecessor’s aircraft carrier speech, albeit for a very different reason: Tuesday was the moment Obama turned toward his own re-election bid. Obama’s address was aimed at claiming credit for a key campaign promise, but it was also an acknowledgment that the hardest part of his presidency — revitalizing an economy that stubbornly refuses to recover — lies ahead. … Sure enough, on Wednesday, a top Organizing for America official e-mailed Obama’s legendary multimillion-member contact list under the subject line “A promise kept.” And perhaps no promise was more central to Obama’s presidency than ending the war in Iraq.

An unfortunate reminder that Obama, while a reluctant commander in chief, is dogged when it comes to seeking political advantage. (Not his party’s, to the chagrin of his fellow Democrats, but his own.) In the preference for politics over war-fighting, he is indeed quintessentially not-Bush.


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