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Eugene Jarecki

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Talking the Talk: An Exercise in Irony From West Point to Oslo

Posted: 12/09/09 10:13 PM ET

While it may have seemed fitting at West Point's Eisenhower Hall last week that President Obama chose to quote Ike in explaining his decision to expand U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, the choice was, on a deeper level, revealing of the contorted reasoning with which the President and his advisors are charting the nation's course.

"I'm mindful of the words of President Eisenhower," Obama declared, "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.'"

What President would not want to lend Eisenhower's peerless military imprimatur to the tough sell of what he knows many see as a road to nowhere? Yet Obama didn't choose just any Eisenhower speech - he chose a quote from Eisenhower's legendary Farewell Address - the same one in which the war-weary general warned America about the dangers of militarism and the rise of the "military-industrial complex."

On a personal level, I understand Obama's choice. In recent years, I myself have become nearly consumed with admiration for Eisenhower's farewell words, which inspired both my 2006 film Why We Fight and my 2008 book The American Way of War. But it was troubling for me to hear the speech cited in the context of an address which, as a devoted student of Eisenhower, I saw as deeply contradictory of his values.

The Farewell Address, as Eisenhower wisely makes clear, is fundamentally about the tension between security and liberty, between the military challenges of an increasingly interconnected world and the pressure that preparing for such challenges exerts upon the delicate framework of the republic. Both a fiscal conservative and a military one - Eisenhower saw the friction between guns and butter, how a dollar spent on war is a dollar taken from other areas of national health. While, by quoting Ike, Obama paid lip service to this tension, no well-spun words can quite reconcile sending 30,000 men at a cost of $1 million a man with the need to address the vast range of challenges we face.

Interestingly, a close look at what Obama omitted from Eisenhower's speech highlights the dangerously selective reasoning with which the current President invoked his forebear. In the passage directly preceding the one he cited, Eisenhower cautioned against precisely the naïve brand of militarism Obama is undertaking:

"Crises there will continue to be," Eisenhower warned. "In meeting them, whether foreign or domestic, great or small, there is a recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties."

If Obama were truly seeking to apply Eisenhower's wisdom, he would need to examine whether his Afghan plan is not perhaps this very kind of "spectacular and costly action" against which Eisenhower warns. He would also have to reflect honestly on the appropriateness of its cost at a time of such desperate need in other areas of our national life. Instead, by carefully omitting this crucial contextual passage, Obama allowed himself to give a token nod to Eisenhower's thinking without applying it sincerely to his decision to spend a minimum entry fee of $30 billion on a campaign of blurrily preemptive goals and a hazy timeline. (Obama's own Secretary of State and National Security Advisor have stepped away from the speech's only silver lining - the President's stated target of a July 2011 withdrawal). Worst of all, Eisenhower was above everything a brilliant strategist who, having inherited a war in Korea had the good sense to withdraw from it, was vehemently opposed to preemption of any kind, and was never one to enter a conflict without a clear and rigorously developed exit strategy.

Like Chris Matthews, at Ike's Alma Mater I saw the response by the cadets as somewhat muted. Their respectful but perfunctory applause hearkened Cordelia's expressions of subdued respect to King Lear: "I love your Majesty According to my bond, no more nor less." Unlike Chris Matthews, though, I did not see West Point as an "enemy camp," but rather as a haven of scholarly rigor on questions of war and peace. As a filmmaker and author critical of the Iraq War, I have had the honor of being invited several times to address the faculty and students at West Point, standing at a podium before the same kind of bright and shining faces as those addressed by the President. What I learned repeatedly from those experiences has reversed my previously held biases - the same misguided prejudice exhibited by Chris Matthews in seeing West Point as enemy territory presumably to a President who once expressed antiwar sentiments. Instead, I have been consistently impressed by the depth, texture, and breadth of thought that is promoted by West Point's faculty among their student body.

Indeed, 2010 West Point senior class member Ben Salvito has published a written response to Chris Matthews in which he summarized well how the values of the institution were reflected in the students' conduct.

"In response to what was said," wrote Salvito, "it is unclear what alternative reaction was expected. To applaud or to boo at the announcements made last night would have both been equally inappropriate for the Corps of Cadets. In fact, the stoic reaction by all ought to leave the world confident in the Corps' and the military's ability to be apolitical and execute the policies of the President and Congress with fervor and duty."

Salvito's impression of West Point is consistent with my own experiences with the institution. When an incredulous reporter for the New Yorker once expressed surprise to Colonel Michael Meese, the Dean of West Point's School of Social Science, that at a time of war I had been invited to show my critical film "Why We Fight," Meese gave the winning reply that "critical thinking is not insubordination."

Today, President Obama faces a new audience when he accepts the Nobel Peace Prize just ten days after declaring his expansion of U.S. military activity in Afghanistan. While one can hardly imagine the verbal calisthenics such an exercise in irony requires of the President and his speechwriters, one can at this point expect to hear a speech similar to the one he gave at West Point -- an extension of the hackneyed argument that the broader long-term goal of peace requires organized military escalation in the short-term. The problem, of course, is that, through his own judgment and the advice he is receiving, Obama is opting for a path that is internally contradictory. So it is that he is required to employ his formidable verbal gift to weave a tangled web of Orwellian doublespeak in which escalation is "withdrawal" and deep involvement in a failing state's affairs is not "nation-building."

While the wisdom of escalation in Afghanistan is, by any historical standard, deeply questionable, Obama's willingness to employ clever rhetoric where statesmanship and vision are needed is disheartening. One might have hoped that, given the groundswell of support with which he was elected, the President might have felt buoyed to exercise greater resistance to the usual runnings of Washington and the ceaseless repetition of history. But, as he closes his acceptance speech today, one has to wonder how those in Oslo will respond. Should they only clap perfunctorily, will Chris Matthews be justified to claim that the peace-seeking Nobel committee has become an enemy camp to our once anti-war President?


Eugene Jarecki's 2006 film "Why We Fight" won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival as well as a Peabody Award. His book, "The American Way of War: Guided Missiles, Misguided Men, and a Republic in Peril" (Simon & Schuster/Free Press) comes out in paperback January 2010.