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Michael Brenner Headshot

Obama at West Point

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Dishonesty in Washington at high levels has become like poverty in India. Just when you think you've seen the very bottom, you discover yet a lower level of degradation. After the Bush years of outright lies and systematic deception, we now have Obama plumbing new depths as he tortures the very language itself. 1984 here we are. Escalation is withdrawal; establishing a protectorate wherein the United States runs the government behind a nominal Afghan façade is "not nation-building;" a facsimile of a British style native state under the Raj is transmuted into self-determination.

Then there is the troubling choice of the West Point Military Academy as venue for this historic address. There is only one place for the President of the United States to speak to the citizenry on a matter of war and peace -- it is the White House. It is -- along with the Congress -- the cynosure of our collective political identity, the repository of our democratic compact. We, as citizens, are all there -- equal members of the republic. Choosing a military venue adds nothing in terms of legitimacy, of dedication to the country, of the supposed conviction of the words being spoken. The trappings of physical might, as opposed to the symbols of authority, are more suitable to tin pot tyrants and megalomaniac emperors.

"As your Commander-in-Chief, I owe you a mission that is clearly defined, and worthy of your service." Obama owes that to the American people as their president -- beyond whatever he owes the troops.

Our soldiers are to be honored -- as we do in every war we fight. We should always remember, though, that they are citizen-soldiers. Every one of them -- cadet, NCO, four star general or volunteer GI -- is above all a citizen. That is their one overriding and enduring identity in the tragic drama that is war. There is no greater glory; there is no greater status. An American army is of the people, by the people, for the people. Nothing less, nothing more. True, these days the 'by' must be qualified. What these volunteers are called upon to do is exceptional since it is not shared by all of their fellow Americans. That unfortunate truth, though, does not reduce the primacy of what being a citizen soldier is and what that means. Sad to say, this core principle of our country has eluded Mr. Obama.

As for the speech itself, there is no point is dissecting further this exercise in sophistry. If Americans are so disengaged from reality and so credulous that they're ready to believe that 2 + 2 = 5, that war is peace, that the very essence of America is at stake in the Hindu Kush, then no commentary can change things. Still, for the sake of the record -- even if purely historical -- allow me to make a few points that perhaps have wider relevance.
  1. The belief that we calibrate a war in an intricate, multi-layered situation such as that in Afghanistan and Pakistan is pure self-delusion. Unhappily, this hubris is widespread in Washington policy circles. Faith says that we can fine-tune interventions. Send in 'X' number of troops for 'X' number of months, re-jigger the military/civilian teams, manipulate the native politicians, then do a reassessment and adjust the modalities.

    The real world simply doesn't permit experimental occupations. There are dynamics that deny us those luxuries. Dynamics at home, dynamics in the military, dynamics in country 'A,' dynamics in the region, etc. As one cynical commentator sourly remarked: "I sometimes think that when adolescents addicted to computer games grow up they become counter-insurgency experts." That caricature is unfair to a corps of able and dedicated persons who have taken on onerous responsibilities. Still, it is no more inaccurate than postulating an ability to calibrate -- and recalibrate -- strategy/tactics for controlling the affairs of places like Afghanistan and Pakistan (not to speak of Iraq where we are being tossed out by a government on intimate terms with Tehran).

  2. Obama is high on the intoxicating conceit that he can talk himself into anything and out of anything. His one strong conviction is that he is smarter, and superior all around, to us lesser mortals. At West Point, he sought not only to delude the American people but also to delude friends and foes alike that they should listen only to that part of the message directed at them. They are not so stupid.

    Any course on foreign policy and diplomacy in a respectable university highlights the dangers of addressing multiple audiences at once. The messages interfere with each other. Yet the New York Times of Nov. 26 ran a long story on how the White House was planning to try and do exactly that. Leaking their clever scheme in advance seemed based on the idea that only Americans with high security clearances have access to the NYT during Thanksgiving week. Time for the White House to get off the Marrakech Express.

How does a great nation with hallowed democratic institutions reach this nadir of public discourse? A meaningful answer requires plumbing the depths of an increasingly atomized society and frivolous political culture. There, we will find the underlying causes. The more proximate, necessary cause clearly is 9/11. We never have recovered our bearings from that trauma. To illuminate the point, let's consider two historical 'might have beens.'

One, if the FBI had been minimally competent, the plot would have been nipped in the bud. Reports from senior agents in two states that non-citizens from the Middle East were taking flying lessons and uninterested in take-off or landing were ignored by the numbskulls at headquarters in Washington. Had they had their heads screwed on, no dramatic attacks, no horror, no American craving for vengeance. Let's be honest with ourselves. It is that thirst for retribution that is crucial to understanding Afghanistan (I & II) as well as Iraq, Somalia, etc. I find it inconceivable that we otherwise would have mustered the audacious will or so numbed our brains so as to launch those adventures. I believe that logic would have held even though al-Qaeda would have had considerably greater coherence and capability than do the scattered bands in the Afghan-Pakistan borderlands today.

Two, if General Franks had nabbed Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora instead of contemplating his early retirement and fat book contract, our hunger for justice would have been appeased. Osama's corpse would have sufficed. Again, the remnants of his organization likely would have retained greater capacity than they have now, but our lust for vengeance and desire for absolute security would have been dulled.

Those are the vagaries of history. Our responsibility is to resist being made hostage to them.