Oama’s speech on slinking out of Iraq positively pulsated with weakness. Not for reasons Rightist wing nuts might rage.
His content and delivery raise alarming implications about who really will control key American foreign policy decisions ahead: his hopey changey rhetoric or David Petraeus et al. Obama reveals he himself is unsure.
We don’t fault him on Iraq or the need to go through the motions of praising the catastrophe. He’s merely following the Bush timetable.
Our critique rests on how he handled the military in this delicate moment. We saw a young man unsure of his authority over the military and overcompensating clumsily. Think the proverbial step parent with the skeptical, hostile teenager stepchild. Attempts to lay down rules are mocked and the step parent’s role denied – openly or passively. That’s his military. He missed an opportunity to correct things before a national audience.
Obama’s key message tonight was ostensibly his declaration that as we abandon Iraq we turn to a shared national reconstruction at home. Yet his avowed goal rests on a conundrum. ‘We will begin the drawn down in Afghanistan in 2011’ is a necessary precondition. But his declaration is really a plaintive plea. In the step parent analogy above, think a curfew issued to the back of a smirking teenager: ‘You will be home by eleven.’ Both know the reality.
Obama unnecessarily inflated the military’s prestige and thereby enhanced its future ability to obstruct his stated goal. His speech undercut his political agenda. ‘Conditions on the ground’ he concedes will dictate how and when the Afghanistan failure winds down. Obama should have made clear he will be the arbiter. A successful address would bestow fulsome praise on the military yet calibrate that necessary cant to preserve his hierarchy and aura as commander-in-chief. He didn’t. Obama is uncomfortable with power or using it.
Did Obama believe his unseemly obeisance to the military will induce them to ‘do him a solid’? Petraeus et al. will agree to ‘preside over a withdrawal’? If not, who thinks this Administration will find the political courage to pull troops without Saint David Petraeus’ blessing in 2011? Before a fevered election?
We obviously understand all presidents must paint by numbers in such addresses. Ceremonial tradition is important. We all here know together that every president since the rise of the Permanent National Security State post 1945 must ladle out panegyric chum to the military. It’s unspoken Canon Law. Especially for Obama without a plausible BOOYAH! victory to hide defeat. Some presidents do these State functions better than others. Even so, the tithing itself can’t be avoided. Especially with the all volunteer force (AVF). There’s too much national guilt over the essentially mercenary force in the field. Don’t we all see yellow ribbons in SUV windows at the grocery store?
In purely political terms, Obama’s lack of modulation unnecessarily undercut his status before a nominal national audience. He unwisely (inadvertantly?) cast himself as the callow, young supplicant, the inexperienced votive priest lighting incense for the (more mature) hallowed military. The subliminal dynamics are inescapable. One is the praise giver, the other the praise worthy. Such psycho-political dominance is more than internal theatrics and affects policies beyond just Afghanistan, ranging from Iran, a truculent Bibbi, Beijing and Northeast Asia, U.S. budgets, oversight, etc.
Did you catch the visuals behind Obama on camera? A huge portion of a flag featuring an eagle clutching arrows draped next to his head. Literally jammed at the TV viewer. Message: ‘He’s tough. Really! See the arrows??’ If SNL had the savage comedic instincts of its glory years, that would be in a ‘cold open.’
A skilled politician facing slow rolling internal insubordination would have used this speech as a platform to assert chain of command while still offering the usual ritual invocations. Praise the troops while husbanding his mystique as commander-in-chief, demonstrating his institutional authority. In effect, force the military to salute him.
He just can’t help prematurely flinching. No matter how much he kowtows to the military in public, he will never be accepted as ‘one of them’. He doesn’t demonstrate an instinctive understanding that his authority does not rest with the the military’s consent. They are not Praetorians.
A still temporarily powerful but declining American military in denial presents world historical problems by itself. Its barely concealed insubordination to Obama complicates internal dynamics as the military and overall Permanent National Security State claw to maintain Nomenklatura privileges over a manipulated, subjugated populace.
(As an aside, we always welcome Obama’s statements that American diplomacy and non-military assets should move to the fore. He as usual spoke glowingly of how American domestic freedoms are an example to the world. An inconvenience that his Administration continues and even expands the Bush Adminsitration’s full spectrum assault on the citizen and aggrandizing an unaccountable Permanent National Security State).
Ironically, the military itself would benefit from less presidential fluff and more blunt managerial direction. The military has not begun to grapple with staggering strategic defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan. These defeats call into question the fundamental institutional ethos, self-identity and nature of American military doctrine. As a nation we can’t allow the military to skate examination of their incompetence, prevarications, and most importantly responsibility for the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocents. The military as an institution if it is to avoid even greater strategic debacles in the future must begin the painful introspection. Insincere presidential praise to placate passive aggressive insubordination should not be used to help avoid the truth.
One speech does not a presidency — or policy initiative — define. His BP ‘address’ came an went in one 15 minute news cycle. Events will dictate more opportunities to revisit all these questions.
We saw tonight a president unsure of his control over self-interested institutions hostile to his agenda and the principles of civilian control and accountability. That’s a danger to us all.