The Obama Watch

Can Obama Inspire on Afghanistan?

Or better yet, why won't he?

By 9.14.09

Send to Kindle

Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, told reporters in Washington on Thursday that she has observed little American support for a troop surge in Afghanistan. Mrs. Pelosi has it right: Afghanistan fatigue is now a palpable American malady.

Yet recent indications from the White House and Pentagon hint at President Obama's continued commitment to what was once thought of as the good war.

With Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal's request for additional troops in Afghanistan expected to come later this month, and a growing sense of defeatism among the pundit class, the Obama administration will have a hard road ahead if it hopes to get Americans behind the war. But Barack Obama has yet to talk about America or its ideals as being worth the fight. It's no wonder public support for our commitment in Afghanistan is lower today than at any point during the Bush administration.

The disconnect between rhetoric and mission is stark. Since taking office, President Obama has continuously spoken of the United States as a country that "all too often…starts by dictating," a place that "has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive" toward allies, where "our government made decisions based on fear rather than foresight, [and] all too often our government trimmed facts and evidence to fit ideological predispositions." America, in Mr. Obama's words, "is still working through some of our own darker periods in our history."

What kind of dupe would rally behind that place?

To make matters worse, while the situation deteriorated in Afghanistan and loose speculation abounded the president went silent on matters of war. When he finally broke his months-long moratorium on Afghanistan with a speech at a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in August, Mr. Obama described the rationale for war as follows: "Those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again. If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans. So this is not only a war worth fighting. This is fundamental to the defense of our people."

Perfectly true. But as clinical and perfunctory as an automobile mechanic's explication of a brake job  --  and as narrowly focused. America is the realization of an unremitting vision -- freedom and equal opportunity for all. Americans have always needed more than a utilitarian breakdown of dangers to inspire them in times of war. European nations coalesced centuries back when tribes banded together to hold off hostiles who were doing the same on opposite sides of mountain ranges or bodies of water. Unlike Europe, America's founding was not a survivalist undertaking dictated by the demands of geography and tribal accord. It was a work of profound imagination. The "defense of our people" is critical, but not sufficient to awaken America's warrior spirit.

Past presidents recognized this. Mr. Obama need look no further than to his Democratic predecessors. Preparing to enter World War I, Woodrow Wilson called on Americans to "fight thus for the ultimate peace of the world and for the liberation of its peoples, the German peoples included: for the rights of nations great and small and the privilege of men everywhere to choose their way of life and of obedience," adding famously, "The world must be made safe for democracy."

Before the country got drawn into World War II, Franklin Delano Roosevelt proposed that America become an "Arsenal of Democracy" and supply Allied Nations with materials for war. He framed the initiative thusly: "Let us say to the democracies: 'We Americans are vitally concerned in your defense of freedom. We are putting forth our energies, our resources and our organizing powers to give you the strength to regain and maintain a free world."

Harry Truman's explanation for fighting in Korea was composed around the idea that "Communist leaders have demonstrated their contempt for the basic moral principles on which the United Nations is founded. This is a direct challenge to the efforts of the free nations to build the kind of world in which men can live in freedom and peace."

Liberty, freedom, democracy. The terms are nowhere to be found in President Obama's recent war speech.

America's ideological core has been stirred by the current health care debate. Citizens want something more complicated than the promise of a government issued security blanket. In fact, they view such promises suspiciously, as threats to liberty and the stuff of demagogues. Why, then, would Mr. Obama choose to sell the Afghanistan war solely as a means of caretaking?

The president may believe that George W. Bush ruined ideology forever. But the notion that all people should be free to choose representative government was never Mr. Bush's to ruin. It is enshrined in this country's founding documents, and has been advanced ever since. It is larger than the either the Bush or Obama presidencies.

If the president wants to boost morale on Afghanistan, he is going to have to drink from the well of American exceptionalism. Warnings about the Hindu Kush as the "graveyard of empires" must be countered with the reminder that America is not an empire. It is the most benevolent global force history has ever seen. And it is that benevolence which, in part, guides our current fighting strategy. For unlike the 19th century British or the Soviets, American soldiers and marines are currently in the greater Middle East defending ordinary people from extraordinary threats. America's promise to protect basic rights and freedoms has become its winning strategy in these new wars.

Nor should the president forget his Afghan audience. Most recent polls show that many more Afghans have a favorable opinion of Americans than of the Taliban. This remains at heart a war of ideas. Let's not throw away an opportunity to inspire a Muslim population that is more open to American cooperation than Islamist brutality.

Without recourse to ideology, President Obama will not only be unable to sell the mission in Afghanistan; he will be unable to define it. Marginalizing terrorists in a particular region is a vital national security accomplishment. But terrorism, like cancer, can always return. The institutions of democracy and a constitution that safeguards human rights comprise the only lasting bulwark against lawlessness and radicalism. By happy coincidence, they also lay at the heart of the American experiment.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

Abe Greenwald is policy adviser and online editor with the Foreign Policy Initiative in Washington.