I read (but did not watch) the President’s speech on Iraq. Of all the things he has done as President, stopping our mindless “stay the course” approach in Iraq has been something I generally approve. I also think it’s a testament to his relative moderation on foreign policy that our withdrawal has been orderly. I disagree with conservatives who say we’re “cutting and running” or that his failure to acknowledge the “success of the Surge” shows his bad faith. The Surge, in fact, while it tamped down some violence in Iraq, has hardly been a success without qualification. There is still a significant terrorist presence in Iraq. Its politics are still corrupt, and its likely future will be as a Shia-led Iranian partner. And the Surge is often credited with a reduction in violence caused by the earlier Anbar Awakening, which itself was caused by the mistakes and oversteps of al Qaeda in Iraq.
The original mission in Iraq (of finding and destroying WMDs) turned out to be largely unnecessary. Upon this, Bush elevated the secondary mission of installing a friendly democracy. This led to a seven year counterinsurgency campaign that has ended inconclusively. It likely created as many Iraqi nationalist terrorists as it destroyed Islamist ones. And for its modest or nonexistent benefits, it did tie down our forces, cost many American lives, destroy much American equipment, and cost a great deal of money over the last seven years. If the first part of the Iraq mission was defensible, the latter portion was clearly a mistake.
As a work of rhetoric, however, Obama’s speech was uninspired. He never seems tremendously comfortable in the commander in chief role. He keeps our troops’ sacrifices and honorable work on the same plane as jobs for steelworkers or healthcare reform. In other words, he misses some of the romance of the soldier’s life that Bush and Reagan understood. This is one of many reasons a great many Americans view him as an alien figure, who does not share their values.
Where Obama does not get points from me and where he seems particularly confused is on Afghanistan. He disagreed with Bush and pulled out of Iraq because he surmised, correctly in my opinion, that the mission was a counterproductive loser. But why then should the same type of mission be pursued in Afghanistan so many years after the 9/11 attacks? Unlike 2001, there are not significant terrorist training camps there; we are dealing there, as in Iraq, with a nationalist and Islamic insurgency fueled by our presence and the various petty and major grievances Afghans have with our lumbering presence. The main part of the enemy have fled to Pakistan, which is an on again, off again, partner in the war against al Qaeda. The mere presence of al Qaeda in Afghanistan should not be enough to justify an extended nation-building campaign; al Qaeda is also in Iraq, not to mention Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, and, for that matter, Germany, France, the UK, and the US. It’s not clear from Iraq that replacing corrupt dictatorships with corrupt, sectarian democracies does anything at all to fight terrorism at a strategic level. Once again, look at Pakistan, a functioning, long-established Islamic democracy, where large elements of its military and intelligence infrastructure support Islamic terrorists. In Afghanistan, as in Iraq, limping along with a smaller, but still significant presence, hardly seems the kind of serious change Obama made such a show of in the campaign. It looks more like hedging his bets in an area in which he is supremely unconfident. And this course promises to continue blood-letting, expense, and meaningless accomplishments like slightly reducing the daily car-bomb count in countries that have nothing to do with us.
How to use the military to fight terrorism is not an easy question. But part of the answer seems like focusing on the terrorists themselves and not being terribly concerned with changing the environment that incubates them. That environment is fueled by a combination of Islam and typical Third World corruption, and it cannot be easily changed. But what our military can do is blow up camps, lavish informants with cash, use drones to blow up terrorist leaders, bomb terror-supporting countries, sink ships, and otherwise engage in our own version of “hit and run” tactics rather than conventionally, and expensively, trying to transform ancient peoples into good liberal democrats.