John Guardiano August 31st, 2010 at 11:32 pm 27 Comments
President Obama tonight declared that U.S. combat operations in Iraq are over. I wish we could say the same about shoddy thinking and slippery language.
Thus, the president reiterated his pledge to bring all U.S. troops out of Iraq by the end of next year; and he again promised that in Aug. 2011 U.S. troops “will begin [to] transition” out of Afghanistan. After all, he explained, “open-ended war serves neither our interests nor the Afghan people’s.”
But of course, no one is talking about “open-ended war.” That’s a red herring and a straw man of the president’s own making. What some of Obama’s critics are talking about is keeping U.S. ground forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. This, they reason, is the best way to ensure that our commitment to both countries is real, effective and enduring.
Obama insists that he wants that. He insists that America will remain committed to helping our Iraqi and Afghan allies for the long-term. Yet he asserts that this commitment can be sustained without U.S. ground forces. Obama seems not to understand what American troops there are doing and why. “Ending this war is not only in Iraq’s interest,” he declared; “it is in our own.
The United States has paid a huge price to put the future of Iraq in the hands of its people… We have met our responsibility. Now it is time to turn the page.
Obama makes it sound as if war is something that we and our allies (be they Iraqi or Afghan) can turn on or off — start, continue or end — at will. But that’s simply not true. The enemy gets a vote.
In truth, what the president didn’t say, but which needs to be said, is this: Wars can only be ended by winning or losing them; and the United States intends to win.
And I’m sorry, but no: the United States cannot simply “turn the page” on history, because history never ends. History presents us with challenges that, like it or not, we must forthrightly address and confront.
Indeed, the situation in Iraq, Afghanistan and the broader Middle East is comprised of a series of difficult challenges which cry out for American leadership. And military involvement and commitment — including the deployment of U.S. ground troops — is an integral part of American leadership.
Obama, then, got it exactly backwards. He said that:
One of the lessons of our effort in Iraq is that American influence around the world is not a function of military force alone. We must use all elements of our power, including our diplomacy, our economic strength, and the power of America’s example to secure our interests and to stand by our allies…
To the contrary: one of the lessons of our effort in Iraq (and Afghanistan) is that American influence around the world depends in large measure upon the exercise of U.S. military power and the presence of U.S. ground troops. A related lesson is that the U.S. military — and in particular, our Army and Marine Corps — must be geared and equipped to fight unconventional and irregular conflicts in populated areas filled with noncombatants.
Yet, Obama canceled the Army’s premier modernization program, Future Combat Systems, while cutting and delaying other crucial ground-force modernization initiatives. The reason: budgetary constraints. The Defense Department, virtually alone amongst government agencies, has been asked to make “hard choices”; and so, weapon systems modernization has suffered the budget ax.
Nonetheless, the president said, with a straight face, that because of “a trillion dollars” spent on war over the past decade, we’ve shortchanged American prosperity. As tennis great John McEnroe used to say, “You cannot be serious!”
In truth, defense spending amounts to little more than four or five percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and is projected to decline to three percent of GDP by the middle of a second Obama term as president — an historic low at a time of war.
As for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they account for little more than one percent of the GDP, according to defense analyst Thomas Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute.
Obama is right that middle-class families are hurting. But they’re hurting because of the recession and the tax threat from swelling entitlement spending, not because of the costs of national defense. You could buy a lot of defense for the cost of the failed stimulus alone.
To his credit, Obama is not reckless. Instead, he is cautious, at least when it comes to defense and foreign policy. Thus, the New York Times reports that, on his first full day as president, Obama told his advisers: “Guys, before you start, there’s one thing I want to say to you, and that is: I do not want to screw this [Iraq] up.”
His admirable caution, pragmatism and prudence have served Obama well, especially when it comes to defense and foreign policy. It’s kept him from doing anything rash like precipitously withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. But it has not given him any insight into the nature of the (foreign policy) challenges and (military) threats that confront the United States in this, the early 21st Century. And here, Obama’s caution, pragmatism and prudence fail him.
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