Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Obama at Fort Hood: Embracing 'The Long War'?

The President at Fort Hood today did not sound like a man planning to scale back American military commitments:

This generation of soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen have volunteered in a time of certain danger. They are part of the finest fighting force that the world has ever known. They have served tour after tour of duty in distant, different and difficult places. They have stood watch in blinding deserts and on snowy mountains. They have extended the opportunity of self-government to peoples that have suffered tyranny and war. They are man and woman; white, black, and brown; of all faiths and stations – all Americans, serving together to protect our people, while giving others half a world away the chance to lead a better life.

In today's wars, there is not always a simple ceremony that signals our troops' success – no surrender papers to be signed, or capital to be claimed. But the measure of their impact is no less great – in a world of threats that know no borders, it will be marked in the safety of our cities and towns, and the security and opportunity that is extended abroad. And it will serve as testimony to the character of those who serve, and the example that you set for America and for the world.

Here, at Fort Hood, we pay tribute to thirteen men and women who were not able to escape the horror of war, even in the comfort of home. Later today, at Fort Lewis, one community will gather to remember so many in one Stryker Brigade who have fallen in Afghanistan.

Long after they are laid to rest – when the fighting has finished, and our nation has endured; when today's servicemen and women are veterans, and their children have grown – it will be said of this generation that they believed under the most trying of tests; that they persevered not just when it was easy, but when it was hard; and that they paid the price and bore the burden to secure this nation, and stood up for the values that live in the hearts of all free peoples.

There is nothing jingoistic or chauvinistic about this. But note the assertions of linked fate: to protect our people, while giving others half a world a way the chance to live a better life....But the measure of their impact is no less great – in a world of threats that know no borders, it will be marked in the safety of our cities and towns, and the security and opportunity that is extended abroad.

Note also the verb tense sequence: perfect (past leading to present moment), present continuous, and a use of the future that is thematically akin to the future perfect -- looking back at the present from a time ahead. There's a grammatical fusion of his own administration's commitments with Bush''s and perhaps with those of presidents to come.

Note too, that like Shakespeare Henry V before the battle of Agincourt, Obama pulls the commander-in-chief trick of inviting the men to envision their future satisfaction in a triumph that has yet to happen:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam'd,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian...
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers...(HV IV, iii).
Perhaps Obama has absorbed Gates' concept of "the long war" -- which, Gates told West Point in April'08, "is likely to be many years of persistent, engaged combat all around the world in differing degrees of size and intensity," adding, "This generational campaign cannot be wished away or put on a timetable."

Gates moderates an expansive sense of mission with a determination to leverage allies, aid and diplomacy to leverage a minimalist use of military force. In an article outlining his strategic vision in Foreign Affairs (Jan/Feb '09, no longer available free), he wrote:
What is dubbed the war on terror is, in grim reality, a prolonged, worldwide irregular campaign -- a struggle between the forces of violent extremism and those of moderation. Direct military force will continue to play a role in the long-term effort against terrorists and other extremists. But over the long term, the United States cannot kill or capture its way to victory. Where possible, what the military calls kinetic operations should be subordinated to measures aimed at promoting better governance, economic programs that spur development, and efforts to address the grievances among the discontented, from whom the terrorists recruit. It will take the patient accumulation of quiet successes over a long time to discredit and defeat extremist movements and their ideologies.
In one sense, this mission is unexceptionable, as the U.S. will doubtless continue to attempt to foster development and democracy throughout the non-rich, nondemocratic world. The hard questions have to do with means -- with the assumption of a "prolonged, worldwide" military campagin . Rory Stewart, Afghan minimalist, wants to foster better governance and development in Afghanistan - he just wants to do it with 20,000 troops and selective, decentralized aid, rather than with 100,00 and a client state relationship. Stewart mocks maximalist assumptions like those expressed by Gates - that with the right combination of tools the U.S. can drain every failed-state swamp where terror breeds.

Obama certainly shares Gates' sense of the scope of the U.S. role in the world, as well as his predilection to "subordinate" military effort to diplomacy and aid. But is he signed up for "the long war"? It's starting to look that way.

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