How to Make Peace With Obama’s Speech

For someone who is often accused of trying to please everyone, including his avowed opponents, Present Obama’s Afghan speech managed to please almost no one. The left has grown more antiwar and in addition sees a potential Vietnam quagmire if the war goes really badly. The right wants a return to George Bush’s reckless militarism and jingoistic, inflammatory rhetoric, which Obama will never provide. In between these two polarities, the ordinary citizen is sick of the Afghan war and apprehensive about jobs and the deficit.

In order to move on, I think we have to make peace with Obama’s speech and the decisions he made. To do that, here are the salient points:
•    Pulling out immediately would be a moral monstrosity, since Afghanistan would collapse and the Taliban would return women to medieval slavery.
•    An open-ended commitment isn’t productive or feasible.
•    No good choices exist. Good and bad options are hopelessly entangled.
•    Providing a short-term commitment with a planned departure date could be two things at once: a serious mistake and the only viable choice.  Living with contradictions is part of being an adult.

Looking at this list, do you think that you could have made better policy decisions than the President did? If not, then give him the benefit of a little understanding.  Whatever its faults, the Republican Party doesn’t undermine its leaders, while the Democrats seem oblivious to the harm caused by habitual complaining.

Next, look at the war as a moral dilemma not as a  simple political or economic problem.  America’s “war of necessity,” whether you agree with that or not, has disrupted a society that was already deeply traumatized and divided. Afghanistan is incredibly poor and fatally unstable. We are rich and stable in comparison. If this conflict can be conducted in such a way that the Afghans are helped toward a minimal stability and put on anything like the right path to security, don’t we owe it to them? That’s not a rhetorical question. It’s a way of reframing the issue.

We recognize that this escalation with its drone aircraft and other mechanized forms of death will undoubtedly kill many innocent Afghans and Pakistanis, as well as cause the further loss of U.S. service men and women.  So the outcome of this action can never be considered an unequivocal good; it will come at a terrible human cost. That is the heart of the moral dilemma.

Finally — and this is the biggest issue for me — is Obama’s Afghan policy moving toward more war or less war, more American militarism or a decrease?  I personally want much less war and militarism. If we could dismantle the military-industrial complex with the wave of a magic wand, I’d do it without hesitation. But moving away from militarism is a complex, tangled affair.

In small but significant ways Obama may be starting the process. He doesn’t wave the bloody flag. He doesn’t demonize the enemy. In place of us-versus-them thinking, his thinking includes all sides as much as possible. Instead of no-bid contracts of the kind that corrupted the Iraq War, he insists on normal bidding procedures. Instead of Bush’s unilateral arrogance, Obama couches the terrorist problem as a shared dilemma with only global solutions.

No one can rejoice in any of these things, but if you seriously consider them, peace can be made with the President’s speech at West Point.  After all, bringing the current polarization in politics to an end means that each of us must reconcile the warring opposites in our own attitudes.

Published in the Huffington Post