Entry from December 1, 2009

What makes snarky Dana Milbank tick? A clue is provided in his Washington Post column today in which he favorably but fretfully compares the lack of military trappings for President Obama’s big speech on Afghanistan tonight to the way his predecessor used to carry on. “One of the common complaints of George W. Bush’s presidency,” he writes, using the typical journalistic device of attributing to anonymous others his own “complaints,”

was his tendency to politicize the military and turn troops into props. The man seemed to make more appearances before military audiences than Bob Hope did. But now Obama is antagonizing many in his party with an expected announcement that he is sending more troops to Afghanistan, and, to rub it in, he’s making the announcement at one of Bush’s favorite military locations: the U.S. Military Academy at West Point — the very birthplace, seven years ago, of the Bush Doctrine. Obama’s fondness for audiences in uniform is not yet in the same category as his predecessor’s. Beyond the infamous “Top Gun” landing aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, and the Thanksgiving turkey he served to troops in Iraq, Bush routinely used military-themed backdrops for his speeches: fighter jets, camouflage nets, American flags, military bands and, best of all, thousands of troops applauding or shouting “Hoo-ah” at the right moments. Still, Obama’s flirtation with military imagery should be of concern to his allies on the left, who are already unhappy with the hawkish direction his Afghanistan policy has taken.

Infamous? The landing on the Lincoln might be a by-word among the people Mr Milbank hangs out with, but that doesn’t make it infamous, a word which implies universal condemnation. But then, many on the left do have the bad habit of assuming, for rhetorical purposes, the universality of what are really strongly partisan points of view.

Take that bit about the “politicization” of the military. There really is something pretty close to universality about the respect Americans have for our armed forces, so it is hardly surprising that any politician should want to be associated with them — just as politicians proverbially want to be with mom and apple pie. That doesn’t make mom and apple pie “politicized,” it merely makes them sensible politicians. I’d have thought that the real politicization would consist in making these kinds of announcements quite without any but a third-person reference to those who are most affected by them — those who must carry out the policy they adumbrate and those who must suffer the gravest consequences if they fail. Wouldn’t that amount to an admission that politics, rather than patriotism, was the only thing that counted?

Not to worry, though. President Obama is no more immune to the lure of patriotic imagery than President Bush was. By coincidence, there appears in Politico today a piece by Richard Benedetto which shows how the Obama administration has exploited the sycophancy of the media to spin the Afghanistan “decision” story the way the White House wanted it spun. Among other things, Mr Benedetto notes that,

with American troop deaths in Afghanistan reaching their highest levels in October, and Obama seeking, as he underwent the reassessment, to avoid projecting an image of a president being callous to the needs of the military, the White House was careful to place him in public situations where he showed respect for the fallen. Many newspapers ran Page One photos of the president’s Oct. 29 middle-of-the-night visit to Dover Air Force Base to salute the flag- draped casket of Sgt. Dale R. Griffin as it returned from Afghanistan. On Nov. 12, the Post ran a Page One photo of a pensive Obama walking somberly among military graves at Arlington Cemetery during a Veterans Day visit. Under the headline “Feeling the Weight of War,” [Joel] Achenbach emotionally wrote, “War and tragedy are putting President Obama through the most wrenching period of his young administration. Visibly thinner, admittedly skipping meals, he is learning every day the challenges of a wartime presidency.” White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel couldn’t have written it any better.

But where, alas, is the Dana Milbank to decry the cynicism of this blatant and crass politicization of the military?

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