President Obama deserves tremendous praise for closing his State of the Union address with an extended tribute to Army Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg. The president deserves additional praise for maintaining a relationship with Remsburg, whom he met three times before bringing to Washington for the State of the Union. Even a critic of the address called the president’s tribute to Remsburg “heartrending and ennobling.” Yet the tribute to Remsburg took place within a moral and intellectual vacuum. The president sent this brave young man to war, but refuses to take responsibility for doing so. And he refuses to explain to the American public why “the war we must win” has become an afterthought.
Last night, Obama continued his practice of folding Afghanistan into the narrative he once reserved for Iraq. “When I took office,” he said, “nearly 180,000 Americans were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, all our troops are out of Iraq. More than 60,000 of our troops have already come home from Afghanistan.” Strikingly, the president does not mention that in the month before he took office, there were only 34,000 US troops on the ground. Twice, the President chose to increase that number, until there were 100,000 troops in the field. Why? Doesn’t Sgt. Rembsurg deserve to know why he had to endure yet another deployment, during which a roadside bomb left him severely injured and comatose for months?
There was a justification for tripling our forces on the ground in 2009, even if a majority of Americans no longer supported the war by the end of that summer. If a resurgent Taliban reoccupied southern, central and eastern Afghanistan, as it had before 9/11, there was every reason to believe it would once again provide sanctuary to Al Qaeda.
Yet even as he sent more and more troops to Afghanistan, Obama had already begun to back away from his commitment to victory. In his December 2009 address at West Point, the president announced, “it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan.” In the very next sentence, he added, “After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.” At West Point, there was no talk of victory and no talk of winning. Whereas vital national interests endure for 18 months, campaign promises expire even sooner.
The President did tell the cadets in the audience, “As your Commander-in-Chief, I owe you a mission that is clearly defined, and worthy of your service.” He warned the audience that Afghanistan and Pakistan are “the epicenter of violent extremism practiced by al Qaeda. It is from here that we were attacked on 9/11, and it is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak.” Yet the additional troops’ goal would be “building the Afghan capacity that can allow for a responsible transition of our forces out of Afghanistan.” The inconsistency between Obama’s description of the threat and his half-hearted response is jarring.
From an electoral perspective, there is nothing surprising about the awkward gymnastics of the President’s policy. In 2008, like every Democratic candidate, he needed to prove he was tough, so he found an issue on which he could outflank Republicans on the right. Once in office, he discovered that his own party was deeply opposed to additional deployments, while polling suggested that Afghanistan was becoming a political albatross.
Yet Obama was trapped by his own rhetoric. His apparent conclusion was that the political cost of sending more troops would be less than the political cost of being known as the flip-flopping, Kerry-esque president who supported the war right up until the moment he opposed it. By the time Obama faced Mitt Romney in his bid for re-election, the public clearly wanted nothing more to do with Afghanistan. Thus Obama could safely bet that Romney wouldn’t try to outflank him by emphasizing Obama’s shallow commitment to the promises of his first campaign.
In his recent memoir, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates acidly remarked, “I never doubted Obama’s support for the troops, only his support for their mission.” Cory Remsburg is the human face of Obama’s divided support. Sgt. Remsburg’s oath of service bound him to execute the mission and assume its risks, regardless of the President’s doubts. For this he should be honored, yet there is a haunting irony when that honor is bestowed by the doubter himself.
Last night, the President admitted that not a single troop may remain in Afghanistan after 2014. The gains made at the cost of our troops’ sacrifice may evaporate as they did in Iraq after the president’s eager withdrawal. Let us hope for something better, so that we can honor our troops’ achievements and not just their sacrifice.