Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A ringing call to pragmatism

Not to presume to judge the wisdom of Obama's chosen course in Afghanistan, I just want to note how Obama himself understands his task as commander in chief of a country that has endured ten years of war, 6,000 lives lost and over a trillion dollars spent.  Here is the core:
We must chart a more centered course. Like generations before, we must embrace America's singular role in the course of human events. But we must be as pragmatic as we are passionate; as strategic as we are resolute.
He is about to pivot here to the highly leveraged U.S. effort in Libya. But this exhortation to pragmatism also describes his approach to Afghanistan -- indeed, to all overseas commitments. He is cerebral and cold-bloodedly minimalist about the AfPak mission. He wants just enough force to continue al Qaeda's degradation and the Taliban's containment -- and get out on sustainable terms.  With what sounds like a relatively modest troop withdrawal, he is marking, against his generals' will, the high tide of counterinsurgency -- beginning the transition to counterterrorism and handoff to the Afghans.

The war efforts must be triaged because the economic base of U.S. power is in peril:
Above all, we are a nation whose strength abroad has been anchored in opportunity for our citizens at home. Over the last decade, we have spent a trillion dollars on war, at a time of rising debt and hard economic times. Now, we must invest in America's greatest resource - our people. We must unleash innovation that creates new jobs and industry, while living within our means. We must rebuild our infrastructure and find new and clean sources of energy. And most of all, after a decade of passionate debate, we must recapture the common purpose that we shared at the beginning of this time of war. For our nation draws strength from our differences, and when our union is strong no hill is too steep and no horizon is beyond our reach.
America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home.
That echoes the speech in which Obama announced the Afghan troop surge, in December 2009:
As President, I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests. And I must weigh all of the challenges that our nation faces. I don't have the luxury of committing to just one. Indeed, I'm mindful of the words of President Eisenhower, who -- in discussing our national security -- said, "Each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs."

Over the past several years, we have lost that balance. We've failed to appreciate the connection between our national security and our economy.
Has any American president ever focused so openly and consistently on the need to set limits on military action in progress? But then, no president has ever presided over two wars exceeding or approaching a decade in duration.

In closing, Obama risked another echo...
Now, let us finish the work at hand. Let us responsibly end these wars, and reclaim the American Dream that is at the center of our story. With confidence in our cause; with faith in our fellow citizens; and with hope in our hearts, let us go about the work of extending the promise of America - for this generation, and the next.
from another president addressing a war-weary nation:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
The wounds this time are not as deep. But confidence in the capacity for renewal may not be as deep either.


  1. Well, sure, the confidence in the capacity for renewal isn't as deep. The two underlying predicaments are at best only roughly comparable: It's like the difference between a teenager recovering from a serious injury and a middle-aged man coping with a chronic complaint - only more so. Both are medical conditions, but, in the best of circumstances, assuming both recover, the teenager will have a whole life ahead, the middle-aged man will still be a middle-aged man.

    If Obama's predicament is from some perspective as profound as Lincon's, it's on account of America's world-historical significance, as realized concretely over the last 100 or so years and still a vision of the future. It does matter very much how we manage our maturity, and not only to ourselves, but any great renewal neither can nor ought to be ours alone. It may take a while yet for our leaders and intellectuals to develop a way of discussing the matter in some other language than the panicky and apocalyptic one that seems to serve us better through the end of the 20th Century, but may now be a useless and decayed linguistic institution (light allusion to Fukuyama there).

  2. (meant America's role as world power was still still only a "vision of the future" in Lincoln's day)