A struggling president had the opportunity on Tuesday night to do the right thing, and to help himself in the process. As President Obama spoke from the Oval Office about the end of combat in Iraq, he failed, however, to do the one big thing he could have done: credit George W. Bush for the success in Iraq.
This president has shown countless times how small he can be, and that is how he looked and sounded in a speech that was not too bad for someone whose heart was not in the war that he was winding down. President Obama used the opportunity to remind us that he was fulfilling his campaign pledge to end the war. In doing so, he not only failed to credit his predecessor for the accomplishment in Iraq, but he also re-wrote history: The drawing down of combat forces in Iraq was done on a timeline set by George Bush. President Obama had promised an immediate withdrawal, but did the responsible thing in adhering to the agreement that preceded him. Addressing that timeline, he also spoke not of victory and its significance.
As Bill Kristol reminds us, however, it was not a reasonable expectation that President Obama would put the war into a broader national security context. President Obama has never supported the Iraq war, and he opposed the surge that created the conditions for the withdrawal that he addressed last night. Politics may suggest that a president not admit when wrong, but doing so could have gone a long way for a president that has lost so many supporters. Ronald Reagan was one of the few to admit his administration’s mistake when he addressed the Iran-Contra affair. Neither in politics nor in character, however, is President Obama like Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush.
Whereas George W. Bush shifted gears from a domestic president to a commander in chief, President Obama has done so reluctantly. A New York Times piece from this weekend reports descriptions of President Obama’s priorities, which remain domestic despite entering the Oval Office as a war president:
With the economy in tatters and health care on his agenda, Mr. Obama was determined to keep the wars from becoming a major distraction. When he held a videoconference on Iraq on his first full day in office, officials recalled, he said: “Guys, before you start, there’s one thing I want to say to you and that is I do not want to screw this up.”
While the desire to not mess up the war is admirable for someone who opposed it, that attitude is a far cry from the enthusiasm President Obama has displayed for his domestic agenda. When deciding on the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan with a timeline, President Obama was supposedly calculating how his decision would affect his agenda at home:
One adviser at the time said Mr. Obama calculated that an open-ended commitment would undermine the rest of his agenda. “Our Afghan policy was focused as much as anything on domestic politics,” the adviser said. “He would not risk losing the moderate to centrist Democrats in the middle of health insurance reform and he viewed that legislation as the make-or-break legislation for his administration.”
Such calculation is not completely unreasonable, but it suggests that the president was setting national security policy based on his domestic priorities. He continued to make that connection Tuesday night when he oddly used the Iraq war completion as a symbol for renewed focus on the economy. While that wasn’t inappropriate, it further reiterated what his priority is. In combination with no broad vision for our foreign policy in the war on terror, that focus suggests how reluctant our commander in chief is to lead the wars.
We already knew that, of course, but the president’s address was a reminder of that as much as it was anything else.