Entry from December 2, 2009

War in the last century hasn’t changed nearly so much as the way we talk to ourselves about war, and try to find ways to make it into something else: a pathology of “capitalism,” for example, or a form of police work or, in large swathes of the popular culture, a species of mental illness. Not the least pernicious characterization of an activity as old as mankind itself is the one which regards it as a rational instrument of statecraft or, as Clausewitz famously rationalized it, “merely the continuation of policy by other means.” But this Enlightenment view essentially concedes the pacifist case for war as mass insanity, for if another means (“policy” or diplomacy) is available, why would anyone ever go to war unless he were crazy?

Yet in spite of all the rationalizations, war remains what it is — which is, among other things, sometimes unavoidable without a more or less disastrous loss of national honor — and this means that those whose rhetorical equipment requires them to regard it as always avoidable, a less-satisfactory alternative to diplomacy, are always going to be in trouble when they try to justify it according to these kinder, gentler assumptions about the world. That’s the trap in which Barack Obama was caught in last night’s self-centered, wishy-washy, complaining, split-the-difference self-contradictory speech. As even The New York Times noted 

President Obama went before the nation on Tuesday night to announce that he would escalate the war in Afghanistan. And Mr. Obama went before the nation to announce that he had a plan to end the war in Afghanistan. If the contrasting messages seemed jarring at first, they reflect the obstacles Mr. Obama faces in rallying an increasingly polarized country that itself is of two minds about what to do in Afghanistan.

But the contradiction is also an intellectual one in the mind of the President, which is why Gabor Steingart observed in Der Spiegel that “never before has a speech by President Barack Obama felt as false as his Tuesday address announcing America’s new strategy for Afghanistan. It seemed like a campaign speech combined with Bush rhetoric — and left both dreamers and realists feeling distraught.” Part of his problem is that the President was also caught in the trap of what Byron York calls his party’s “good war-bad war strategy.” He doesn’t mean a military strategy but an electoral one. Afghanistan was identified as the good war in order to underline the point that Iraq was supposed to be the bad war. Now that Iraq has ceased to be much of a matter of concern to anyone apart from the extreme left, Mr Obama is stuck with his loudly proclaimed “good war” at a time when it shows signs of turning every bit as bad as Iraq ever was. If the consequences weren’t so deadly, his predicament would be funny.

Maybe we shouldn’t find it surprising, then, that such a remarkable amount of the commentary on the speech and the policy it announced concentrated on its political consequences or whether or not we had arrived at what (at least) one commentator called “the defining moment of the Obama presidency.” Could this be more interesting that whether or not we would win or lose in Afghanistan? “Obama puts his popularity on the (battle) line” wrote Tom Shales in The Washington Post. You can see why this would be the big story of the speech to nervous Democrats with their eye on the opinion polls, but shouldn’t we begin from the assumption that the Post’s readers are more interested in questions of national security than in the Democrats’ electoral prospects? Perhaps, after all, they’re not. Perhaps they, too, are more concerned about their party’s electoral prospects than the question of whether or not the war in Afghanistan is worth fighting. It does seem possible.

But if the media concentrated on the politics of the thing, they could point to Mr Obama’s own example. As Mr Steingart writes in Spiegel,

It was the least truthful address that he has ever held. He spoke of responsibility, but almost every sentence smelled of party tactics. He demanded sacrifice, but he was unable to say what it was for exactly. An additional 30,000 US soldiers are to march into Afghanistan — and then they will march right back out again. America is going to war — and from there it will continue ahead to peace.

Like Mr Shales, who wrote that the President’s rhetoric “sounded awfully similar to President George W. Bush’s on Iraq,” he notes the unsettling comparison to the pre-hope’n’change era. “It was as though Obama had taken one of his old campaign speeches and merged it with a text from the library of ex-President George W. Bush.” Newsflash! Utopian promises fail to abolish reality! The absurdity really lies, as it always does on these occasions, with the attempt to justify war on any grounds but the grounds of honor, and the related need to maintain in the rest of the world respect for American arms (as opposed to popularity for America) by defeating the enemy

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