Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said: “Morale is the greatest single factor in successful wars.” So why did President Obama choose last night’s address to further disintegrate what morale is left in the fight in Iraq? Choosing the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York was on first blush a wise decision. These are the young men and women who will put their lives on the line, or may have already, to defend the President’s decisions. This is not the “enemy camp” as MSNBC’s Chris Matthews described them. And these are not merely props in a photo op as President Obama poorly joked while at Osan Air Base in South Korea earlier in November.
But when President Obama chose to give a full throated, campaign-like outburst against the Iraq war and former President Bush to the future troops who may be deployed there, a gripe that was also heard by the troops already based in Iraq, he crossed a line that no other President would have, or has previously, crossed. This was not a speech designed for an audience of brave souls willing to lay their life on the line for this great nation, but a speech designed to appease a political base in desperate need of conciliation. But let’s be clear, this was a muddled and defensive speech to begin with.
While he spoke of the importance of preventing another September 11, he also never used the word “win” or “victory” but merely mentioned a “successful conclusion,” implying the end trumps the result. He enlightened the audience on his naïve position that the U.S. can lead the way to a nuclear free world, which is not only unrealistic, but entirely unilateral and again informs the troops serving our nuclear interests that their future is uncertain.
He spoke out against Guantanamo Bay, another policy position entirely unrelated to the Afghanistan strategy but one that reminds our troops that any enemy combatant captured on the battlefield may require Miranda rights, a defense attorney and a first class ticket to Manhattan for their show trial. He also failed to recognize the capable and brave men and women of the U.S. Navy who are ably running the terrorist detention facility today without cause to be demonized.
He spoke of his own sacrifice and burden signing letters, reading letters, visiting Walter Reed Hospital, travelling to Dover to be pictured watching heroes be returned home. President Obama created new straw men to fight against, mentioning the famous “there are those” who oppose his vision, several times. He blindly discussed the cost of war in relation to our economic crisis and jobs numbers, while ignoring that the interest on U.S. debt alone will soon eclipse not only the spending on both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, but the energy, education and homeland security budgets included. Thankfully, he did not mention the critical importance of Cash for Clunkers.
President Obama took credit for repairing relations between the American and Muslim world, apparently with that speech he gave once. He again largely ignored the progress and stability on this very topic from his predecessor. Of course Obama may not yet have visited the street named after Bush that runs through the capital of the majority Muslim nation of Albania where onlookers in 2007 screamed in delight for the visiting President crying “Bush-y, Bush-y” outside the Bar Kafe George W. Bush. And yet again, he apologized for our nation, to our troops, repeating his favorite refrain: “…we have at times made mistakes.”
But beyond all of these muddled messages was the opening attack against the Iraq War. Obama said: “Then, in early 2003, the decision was made to wage a second war in Iraq. The wrenching debate over the Iraq War is well-known and need not be repeated here. It is enough to say that for the next six years, the Iraq War drew the dominant share of our troops, our resources, our diplomacy, and our national attention — and that the decision to go into Iraq caused substantial rifts between America and much of the world.”
First, in 2003 some of the cadets he was addressing last night were between the ages of 12 and 14. So no, they may not remember the run-up to the Iraq war as well as he does or remember the overwhelming international and domestic support for the invasion and removal of the murderous tyrant Saddam Hussein. They may have only read Obama’s speech in February of this year at Camp Lajeune where he applauded the mission and its outcome.
Tonight, he was clearly telling them that President Bush had not only gotten them into a useless war in Iraq, but that the useless war there had hurt their efforts in Afghanistan and caused a rift between the U.S. and the world. Militarily, these points are open to analysis and debate, and many observers dispute them. But this was neither the time nor the place to have this debate. Currently, over 125,000 U.S. soldiers are still stationed in Iraq. By August of 2010, when the withdrawal from Iraq is fully underway, there will be between 35,000 and 50,000 troops left, until they are gradually withdrawn by the end of 2011.
It is unconscionable to believe that the President didn’t know that some of the men and women he was addressing may soon be part of this fighting force, and even its leadership. It is also unbelievable that he did not recognize that U.S. troops in Iraq were listening to this speech or reading it in the days to come. So why would the Commander in Chief of our Armed Forces tell the very soldiers that serve him that he does not believe in the Iraq War, even if that is truly the case? Morale is supposed to be provided by the President, not substituted for angst, indecision and sorrow.
It is hard to judge the cadet’s reaction to the President’s address. As subdued soldiers at a military event, their applause and standing ovations seemed automatic with a senior officer in the room. But the television pans of the audience did not reveal a group of faces anxious to finish the Iraq mission and get started on Afghanistan.
This address last night was another reflection of the Rahm Emanuel school of Chicago politics, revealing a distasteful recognition that the most critical battle this President is interested in waging is the rhetorical one against his predecessor. This was not a speech by a great orator as the President is imagined. And it was not a speech that lifted the spirits of a military that has struggled through years of battle, and even recent domestic turmoil. Maybe as the line goes: “The beatings will continue until morale improves.”