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.”