Bill Kristol takes exception today not with what Barack Obama said in his quasi-State of the Union speech last night, but for what he didn’t say. Obama called us a “nation at war” for the past seven years, but then curiously forgot to mention that he had just increased troop levels on one front while neglecting to mention that he has begun considering a significant withdrawal from the other. Shouldn’t a president of a nation at war discuss that with Congress in his first joint session?
Obama did say he’s “carefully reviewing our policies in both wars.” “War” is just one area in which the president conducts and reviews public policy, apparently no more urgent than energy, health care or education–indeed, perhaps less so. You’d never know from the one-sentence discussion of Afghanistan that just last week the president had ordered an additional 17,000 troops there. Obama doesn’t seem to think his responsibility as commander in chief is in any way special. He certainly felt no responsibility even to begin to educate the public about this theater to which he’s committing additional American soldiers.
Instead, both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were treated as sideshows to “a new era of engagement” that Obama claims has begun. The only particular place mentioned by Obama, in addition to Iraq and Afghanistan/Pakistan, was Israel: “To seek progress toward a secure and lasting peace between Israel and her neighbors, we have appointed an envoy to sustain our effort.” The Israeli-Arab dispute and its envoy merits a mention. Yet Iran and its nuclear program does not?
This was not the speech of a man who even contemplates the possibility of using force within the next year to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. This was not the speech of a man who thinks America needs to be reminded about the dangers out there in the world, because Americans might have to be summoned to deal with them. This was not the speech of a man who thinks of himself as a war president.
Obama didn’t run as a war president, either. He ran as the man who would get America beyond the war in Iraq and restore the vitality of old alliances, some of which did us little good in tough times anyway. Obama did promise to fight in Afghanistan more vigorously, mostly when pitted against John McCain in the general election, who did run as a war president, and got shellacked. Obama might have taken a message from that experience.
Still, the primary duty of a president is not Economist in Chief, but in securing the nation and ensuring victory in wars we fight. For good reason, Obama focused on the economy, probably more to quell the fears his own rhetoric and the stumbles of his own team have provoked. However, the nation needed to hear from its Commander in Chief last night, too, explaining why we sent 17,000 troops to fight in Afghanistan and why he feels we have achieved enough of our goals in Iraq to begin the drawdown. How does Obama plan to continue fighting terrorism and other threats, such as the Iranian nuclear-weapons program, which Obama never even bothered to mention to Congress in his speech?
America is a country at war, whether Obama likes it or not. He has a responsibility to national security that went all but unmentioned in last night’s speech. That’s a poor, Jimmy Carter-like start to Obama’s presidency.