In the Arena

The Obama Speech

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It seems this President is destined to make the toughest and most convoluted political arguments of any recent occupant of the office: We had to bail out the bankers in order to save your jobs. Our stimulus package prevented something far worse than the current, limping economy from overwhelming us. And tonight: the war in Iraq was a tremendous waste of lives and dollars, and the money should have been spent here at home, but we fought it honorably–for the most part–and we should be pleased that the Iraqis may manage to build themselves a stable society.

This isn’t easy. And it may just be me, but the President’s discomfort seemed evident tonight–or maybe it’s just that sitting down, with his hands clasped before him, staring into the camera isn’t his best venue for public speaking. Or it may be that announcing the end of a foolish mission requires a certain stiffness and sobriety.

There is also the matter of audiences, as our soon-to-be colleague Fareed Zakaria has just pointed out on CNN. This was not just a speech for the American people. It was also a speech for the Iraqi people–and the Afghan people. You can bet that the commitments he made to the Iraqis will be front page news in Baghdad tomorrow…and the warning that he gave the Afghans–that our commitment is limited–will be big news in Kabul. Those were important messages to send. Of necessity, the message he sent to Americans–we’re going to focus on the economy–had to take a subordinate place in the speech: yet another difficult argument to make. And unfortunately, he made it with neither freshness nor much conviction.

In the end, the note he sounded over and over was about our troops and the remarkable job they did under scandalous circumstances. As he spoke, I could not help but remember the absence of a credible plan when we got to Baghdad, the shoddy equipment, the unarmored humvees, the absence of sufficient troops to bring order to the mission, the arrogance of Donald Rumsfeld, the illegal meddling done by  Dick Cheney. Obama graciously neglected to mention any of these.

In even the most worthy wars, it is difficult for families who’ve lost loved ones to believe that the victory was worth the life destroyed. In a questionable war, those sacrifices ramify and haunt the survivors–that is why the incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder is so high among Iraq veterans. But it is important to honor those who fought and those who died. As the President said, in the most touching line of the speech:

As one staff sergeant said, “I know that to my brothers in arms who fought and died, this day would probably mean a lot.”

And so this speech was a necessary ceremony of the presidency, if a thankless one. The commentators will say the President didn’t transcend. His critics will say that he refused to acknowledge the “success” of the surge. But he also refused to indulge in relitigating the stupidity that launched the war. The lines will be recorded in history:

So tonight, I am announcing that the American combat mission in Iraq has ended. Operation Iraqi Freedom is over…

But the moment won’t be remembered any more fondly than the end of the Korean conflict. The best that can be said is that we survived Iraq. The best that can be said about the President tonight is that he survived, too, yet another very difficult moment in his presidency.