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60 Minutes and One Giant Step Back

For those celebrating the West Point and Oslo speeches — and reassured by Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates that the 18-month “deadline” wasn’t a deadline, Obama’s 60 Minutes interview should come as a rude awakening. The lefty netroot rhetoric, contemptuous of the idea that victory is America’s goal and that of the commander in chief, was back in full force. And typically for Obama, it came in an apparent fit of pique after Steve Kroft criticized his West Point speech as too detached and unemotional:

You know, that was actually probably the most emotional speech that I’ve made, in terms of how I felt about it. Because I was looking out over a group of cadets, some of whom were gonna be deployed in Afghanistan. And potentially some might not come back.

There is not a speech that I’ve made that hit me in the gut as much as that speech. But I do think that it was important in that speech to recognize that there are costs to war. That this is a burden we don’t welcome. It’s one that was foisted on us as a consequence of 19 men deciding to kill thousands of Americans back in 2001. That there’s unfinished business. And, you know, I think that one of the mistakes that was made over the last eight years is for us to have a triumphant sense about war. This is a tough business. And there are tough costs to it. And I think because it was detached from our day to day lives in so many ways — unless you were a military family; unless you were one of those who were being deployed. Because we didn’t even get asked to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there was a tendency to say, “We can go in. We can kick some tail. You know this is some glorious exercise.”

For starters, there’s something odd indeed about this president if he considers his West Point offering an emotional speech. (Perhaps next time he could tap his foot or the podium to signal his heightened emotional state.) But the remainder of his comments on this point are simply jaw-dropping. We learn that he’s above all that “We win, they lose” sort of stuff. We have troops in the field, and this president disparages the notion that we should commit ourselves to victory — triumph — and declare our motives “glorious.” Are they not? Isn’t this about fighting “evil”? One can hardly imagine any other president turning up his nose at the idea that we should unashamedly declare ourselves devoted to triumph in battle or that our cause in defending ourselves (and Western civilization) is anything other than glorious. Can one imagine if he had said that in front of the West Point cadets? I suspect he wouldn’t have dared.

And then there’s the deadline. It seems that despite the best efforts of Clinton and Gates, Obama really is all about limits. He explains that “it was a mistake for us to engage in open-ended commitment in Afghanistan. That was not necessary in order for us to meet our national interests as properly defined. It was in our interest to make sure that we had this boost of troops that could train Afghan forces, stabilize the country, sustain a platform for us going after Al Qaeda aggressively. And that is exactly the order that I gave.” But he really doesn’t mean to signal to the enemy that we aren’t in this to win, does he? Hmm. After repeatedly objecting to the notion that his war address was contradictory or confusing, he had this to say:

Well, as I’ve said, we’ve got a mission that is time-definite in order to accomplish a particular goal, which is to stand up Afghan security forces. And as I said, we did this in Iraq just two years ago. And General [David] Petraeus, who was involved in my consultations in designing this strategy, I think is the first to acknowledge that had it not been for those additional troops combined with effective political work inside of Iraq, we might have seen a much worse outcome in Iraq than the one that we’re gonna see.

(Yes, Obama was one who denied that the additional troops were going to work in Iraq, but this is as close as we’re getting to a confession from him.) We then get a mishmash, at best. On one hand, he says of the drawdown:

The pace of that drawdown, how many U.S. troops are coming out, how quickly, what the slope is of that drawdown will be determined by conditions on the ground. And we are gonna be making consistent assessments to make sure that as we are standing up Afghan troops, that we are replacing U.S. troops or ally troops, and we’re not gonna do it in a precipitous way that in any way endangers our troops or endangers the progress that we’ve made.

Yet he’s also signaling that the limit itself is necessary because he and his constituents have other things to do: “In the absence of a deadline, the message we are sending to the Afghans is, ‘It’s business as usual. This is an open-ended commitment.’ ” Later on, he emphasizes:

I think what is true is that if we have an open-ended commitment in a place like Afghanistan with no clear benchmarks for what success means, that the American people who have just gone through the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, who’ve already endured eight years of war, at some point are gonna say: enough. And rightly so. And my job is to come up with a strategy that is time-constrained, that matches the resources that we’re expended to the nature of our national interest.

Actually, his job is to win a critical war. But he’s not into triumphalism.

Frankly the interview is a mess — a mass of contradictory signals and a leap back into netroot-land. According to the 60 Minutes Obama, we shouldn’t announce that we intend to triumph. Our cause shouldn’t be characterized as glorious. We’ve got limited time and resources for this sort of war. I think the Obama’s spinners who promoted the appearance of a tougher, more realistic, and frankly more pro-American Obama will have their work cut out for them explaining away the 60 Minutes Obama.

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