I didn't watch the President's speech this evening (I don't have a tv at the moment, for one), but I did read through the entire text.
I was struck by a number of things. I lay them out below. I was also struck, though, by how much I managed to disagree with and question the President's take on what should have been a welcome, non-polarizing development, namely the end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq.
First, I noticed a healthy dose of overdramatization, something I've come to expect from Obama speeches. The war in Iraq was and is a serious matter. The American lives lost in hostilities are truly a grave loss. But as with many issues (financial reform, healthcare, the stimulus, etc), Obama's rhetoric, designed to heighten the importance of his action, to shape the historical narrative, and get others to follow his lead, inflates the dire sense of the occasion and proves unhelpful for the national psyche as a result. Specifically, Obama sets the stage as ominously as possible - the American Dream itself "may seem beyond our reach." That dour Carter-esque tone tees up, yet again, the need for a messiah. He sets the stakes too high too often, leading to needless anxiety.
And statistically, while I genuinely regret that any American soldiers had to die or get wounded in Iraq, I think it's somewhat amazing that the U.S. fought for so long and accomplished what it did...with so few casualties...compared to historical examples.
Second, was the President's pledge to end the combat mission in Iraq? Or to end the War in Iraq? The definition of an end...which nonetheless leaves thousands of U.S. troops on the ground in country raises a whole host of additional questions. And it convinces me further that the U.S. is increasingly incapable of tailoring its application of force, in large part because it cannot extricate itself easily or swiftly from any given place on the globe once it's on the ground. While it may have other advantages as a result, it is no hoplite force today.
We are done: "This completes a transition to Iraqi responsibility for their own security."
But we're not: "Going forward, a transitional force of U.S. troops will remain in Iraq with a different mission: advising and assisting Iraq’s Security Forces, supporting Iraqi troops in targeted counterterrorism missions, and protecting our civilians."
That's aircraft carrier banner material.
Third, while I agree with the President that the U.S. has paid a huge cost for the war, I disagree with his destiny-laced view of the war and the U.S. relationship with Iraq. "Through this remarkable chapter in the history of the United States and Iraq, we have met our responsibility." Did we ever have a responsibility to Iraq? Even after the U.S. toppled Saddam Hussein, I don't believe the U.S. had an obligation of any kind to Iraq other than to itself, mainly to save face. The continued U.S. actions, the surge chief amongst them, demonstrated our unique national goodwill to see through what we started. But that was about it.
Fourth, as to Afghanistan, either Obama is watering things down for the viewing public or he's showing a lack of deftness in military matters. His statement: "And because of our drawdown in Iraq, we are now able to apply the resources necessary to go on offense." Now that sounds nice, a sort of broad logic that I like (and is true to some extent logistically) because we do need to minimize our military commitments overseas and stop overtaxing our troops. But what in the world have we been doing there all along if not going on the offensive (not "on offense")?
The President sought to elucidate the notion that there are limits to U.S. military power projection...but then spoke of the "the limitless possibilities of our time." It's a tad confusing. The latter point seems naive and the former, while perhaps true, seems inadvisable to emphasize in a speech as the President of the United States because it has a deeper, implied Carter-esque undercurrent to it.
Fifth, Obama's focus on the "rebuilding at home," while it plays well given the recession, fails to mention how his own agenda has contributed mightily to the "record deficits" he cautions against. It also confuses the purpose of the speech: it's a speech about ending a war. Sure, various political points could be scored by additional tie-ins. But a truly great orator wouldn't make such an overt detour on such an occasion - a single subtle line could have tied into the national mindset sufficiently. The same applies even to the focus on jobs and the economy. And there, not surprisingly, we see a focus couched in terms of "we must give..." as we're told "it must be our central mission as a people" - nevermind the President's own year-long distracting detour through the healthcare push.
Finally, I'm somewhat taken aback by the President's dark language - "And though our nation may be travelling through rough waters" etc. - in light of his numerous vacations over the past few months, as well as his repeated entertainer guests at the White House. If these are in fact hard times, his actions really haven't jibed with what he recognizes rhetorically. It's a small point, but a notable one.
Perhaps my own tone here comes off as a bit bitter. But as I reached the fifth and final page of the speech, I couldn't help but wonder if this was yet another occasion...where it may have been wisest for the great speech-giver...to give no speech at all.