President Obama isn’t terribly concerned with winning wars.
In his speech last night, Obama talked about “our effort to wind down this war,” “responsibly end[ing] these wars,” and “tak[ing] comfort in knowing that the tide of war is receding.” He did not use the words “win” or “winning”; the word “victory” appeared only in a reference to the killing of Osama bin Laden.
The stylistic decision is revealing; ideologically and temperamentally, Obama is still not entirely comfortable as a war president. He is still naturally attracted to the political appeals to war-weariness that his 2008 campaign was largely built on.
Substantively, this has led him to a decision that carries some real risks. He isn’t rejecting the counterinsurgency strategy that General David Petraeus has pursuing in Afghanistan, but he is pulling troops out a bit faster than Petraeus would prefer. That will make the task of leaving behind an Afghan force capable of securing the gains U.S. forces have made somewhat more difficult, and Obama’s decision to announce the withdrawal timeline may make it harder to press for what he calls “initiatives that reconcile the Afghan people, including the Taliban.”
But last night’s speech wasn’t about substance, it was about politics. Consider this passage, dropped into a speech about foreign policy:
Above all, we are a nation whose strength abroad has been anchored in opportunity for our citizens at home. Over the last decade, we have spent a trillion dollars on war, at a time of rising debt and hard economic times. Now, we must invest in America’s greatest resource — our people. We must unleash innovation that creates new jobs and industry, while living within our means. We must rebuild our infrastructure and find new and clean sources of energy. And most of all, after a decade of passionate debate, we must recapture the common purpose that we shared at the beginning of this time of war. For our nation draws strength from our differences, and when our union is strong no hill is too steep and no horizon is beyond our reach.
America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home.
The message is clear: Let’s switch to talking about domestic politics. (With meaningless Tom Friedman-approved platitudes.)
Obama should be careful what he wishes for. After all, investing in industry and infrastructure and clean energy and so forth was supposed to be what his 2009 stimulus was all about, and, based on the terms set by Obama’s own advisers, it has been a spectacular failure. As the economy sank further, Obama put all his energy into a deeply unpopular overhaul of the nation’s healthcare system. If he wants to make the 2012 election about that record, I’m sure the Republican nominee will be happy to oblige him.