Robert Tracinski calls this line from yesterday’s speech at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier “almost triumphalist.” That’s not the word I’d use after watching the clip; he says it somberly before reciting the number of troops killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan. The point is less “mission accomplished” than “this has been very hard on a lot of American families for a very long time,” an apt message on Memorial Day. Tracinski’s right, though, that there’s a note of defensiveness in Obama’s mention of it, a nudge to the troops that it’s because of his decisions that there are no new KIAs being buried at Arlington lately — whatever that might mean for ISIS overrunning Iraq or Afghans re-embracing warlordism to fight the Taliban. He stopped America’s bleeding, even at the terrible price of Iraq coming undone.
But whatever this administration’s role, it is disturbing to see the president touting the peace that we are supposedly enjoying after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have “come to an end.” That’s an appropriately passive expression, since President Obama can’t say that we’ve won those wars, only that they have “come to an end”—and only for us. I should also add: and only for now.
It’s one thing to celebrate the end of fighting when the war has been won on terms that secure a lasting peace. In that case, you are paying tribute to what our troops achieved when they risked their lives to protect us. But to applaud the fact that our men and women are out of the fight and standing on the sidelines, while the war is still raging and we’ve lost most of the strategic gains that they won, seems to imply that their deaths were unnecessary after all. They gave their lives for a strategic goal the current administration finds so unimportant that it’s not willing to take decisive action to defend it.
The worst part is that President Obama seems oblivious to the likelihood that this special Memorial Day with no US ground war will be a short-lived hiatus, that the spiraling situation in Iraq, as well as the predictable relapse in Afghanistan once we’re “down to an embassy presence by the end of next year,” will drag us back in.
We voted for this, though. It was totally foreseeable that a guy who opposed the war in 2002 and got elected president, in a landslide, by promising to bring the troops home from Iraq (and later Afghanistan) would choose to keep his campaign promise even if it spelled strategic disaster. Obama’s approach to Iraq for the first five years of his presidency was simple and consistent: Disengage, not just militarily but diplomatically, and worry about it again only if and when you absolutely have to. As of last summer, with ISIS already building a fledgling caliphate in parts of Anbar province, there was still 61 percent support for his decision to withdraw in 2011. (Meanwhile, there’s 62 percent support now for sending ground troops to fight ISIS. Go figure.) His message may ring hollow to those soldiers and families of the fallen who value victory even at the price of supreme sacrifice, but that’s not how most Americans seem to lean, at least not anymore. The setting for this speech may have been Arlington but Obama was speaking to an entirely different audience than the one in front of him.