If, as the Roman historian Sallust once observed, “Every war is easy to begin but difficult to stop,” then President Barack Obama just completed a difficult task.
The president’s 18-minute address—call it a “declaration of conclusion”—laid out how the war’s objectives had evolved, as so often happens in war. “A war to disarm a state became a fight against an insurgency,” he explained. The speech promised that America would “sustain and strengthen” its global leadership, offered to turn the page on the differences that divided the war’s supporters and opponents, extended a gracious word to President George W. Bush, pledged “long-term partnership with Iraq,” and paid tribute to America’s military forces, who “completed every mission they were given.”
Some will credit the president for this latter comment. But one wonders why. Praising this cohort of American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines for their sacrifice and service is akin to declaring that the sky is blue. What else could be said of the men and women who defend us, tour after tour, battle after battle, in surges and withdrawals, in postwar wars and missions orphaned by panicky congressmen?
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the president’s address is not what it said about the end of this war, but what it revealed about him.
For example, the president’s observation that the war has been costly in “a time of tight budgets at home” would be laughable if the war in Iraq and the out-of-control spending in Washington weren’t such serious matters. The Obama presidency is many things, but one thing it is decidedly not is “a time of tight budgets.” Federal spending has mushroomed from $2.98 trillion in 2008 to $3.52 trillion in 2009 to $3.72 trillion by the end of this year—an increase of 25 percent in two years.
And even though the president extended a fragment of grace to his predecessor early in the address, he couldn’t help but return to his default position by the final half of the speech, declaring that “over the last decade, we have not done what is necessary to shore up the foundation of our own prosperity. We have spent over a trillion dollars at war…short-changed investments in our own people, and contributed to record deficits.”
In other words, not only is the Iraq war the bogeyman and scapegoat for America’s economic woes, the war and its architects are to blame for spiraling deficits. Never mind that it was during the Obama administration that the deficit nearly tripled.
On more philosophical matters, the address underscored yet again the president’s discomfort with the word “victory.”
Although the president conceded that the troops had “defeated a regime that had terrorized its people” and “met every test they faced,” he never declared victory, never told the world that Iraq was a better place because of American intervention.
The V word’s absence from this address is unsurprising. “I’m always worried about using the word ‘victory,’” Obama once said of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.
This is significant in the context of this speech and this moment, because if this withdrawal, this drawdown, this retreat, is not a victory, what is it? The battles have been won, the mission accomplished, the cities cleared, the objectives realized. As former national security advisor Stephen Hadley observes, “The U.S. objective for a post-Saddam Iraq was an Iraqi government that would not pursue weapons of mass destruction, invade its neighbors, support terror, or oppress its people. That objective has been achieved.”
That looks and sounds like victory to me, but I’m not the commander-in-chief.
One continues to get the sense that the president resists using the V word because he simply doesn’t like the notion of America being positioned above other nations. Sure, he mouths platitudes about America’s role as “leader of the free world.” But as he once famously put it, “I believe in American exceptionalism…just as the Brits believe in British exceptionalism, and the Greeks in Greek exceptionalism.”
Those aren’t the words of a poli-sci professor or UN diplomat, but of an American president. Indeed, this president may be the perfect reflection of the post-national, postmodern age in which we live.
Recall that in this address he labeled war “the darkest of human creations.” Not tyranny. Not genocide. Not racialism. Not any of the other isms that have deformed humanity.
To be sure, war is destructive and costly and horrific for those who wage it and die in it. But war is not the darkest of human creations. Just ask those who survived Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
Alan Dowd writes on defense and security issues.