SALT LAKE CITY, July 26, 2013 — Speeches do not win wars. From the outset of his presidency, Barack Obama looked forward to pulling troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, whether it was in America’s interests or not.
He fulfilled that desire in Iraq 18 months ago.
In his recent speech on jobs and the economy, President Obama returned to our anticipated withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Obama’s economic policy is connected to his military leadership in an important, and dangerous, way. His penchant for delivering speeches at the cost of real governing leaves taxpayers, employers, workers, and military professionals wondering what the strategy is exactly.
First, earlier this week the president pivoted again to economic issues.
“It has to be Washington’s highest priority. It’s certainly my highest priority,” he assured the crowd at Knox College in Illinois.
It was at least the fourth time in his presidency that he introduced a specific focus on job creation. In a reprise of other reprises, Obama went on to explain that he’ll begin — again — to outline a plan for economic growth.
“I’ll lay out my ideas for how we build on the cornerstones of what it means to be middle-class in America and what it takes to work your way into the middle class in America.”
We’ve seen this before. In December 2010, August 2011, and February of this year.
House Speaker John Boehner made light of the president’s re-emphasis.
“If the president was serious about helping our economy, he wouldn’t give another speech. He’d reach out and actually work with us.”
But in four and half years as chief executive, Obama has proven ineffective at working. He rather prefers speechifying. The trend isn’t limited to domestic matters, either. Events overseas have got dangerously chaotic because the president can do little more than preach about a world in which all nations can somehow rise above self interest.
In Afghanistan, that tendency can put at risk whatever gains might have been possible a few years ago. In his economic speech, Obama mentioned the war as if it was a tax proposal or an environmental regulation.
“We’ve got to continue to end the war in Afghanistan, rebalance our fight against al Qaeda.”
The president speaks of concluding the war as if it is a good by itself, independent of any consequence that might result from it. It was a reiteration of a theme he’s been developing at least since earlier this year, when he declared that victory was within sight.
“And our core objective — the reason we went to war in the first place — is now within reach: ensuring that al Qaeda can never again use Afghanistan to launch attacks against America.”
That may be. Recent reports suggest that al Qaeda is weak in Afghanistan, but the Taliban and other groups are flexing their muscles more than ever. So a defeated al Qaeda is little gained if other terrorist groups find haven in a country that could be governed by the same Taliban who protected Osama bin Laden for years.
The president went on to say in his radio address of January 12 that, “after more than a decade of war, the nation we need to rebuild is our own.”
That’s really the motivation for a withdrawal from Afghanistan. Perhaps it is the best policy, by coincidence. Obama wants to pursue it because it is easy. He then doesn’t have to continue to manage a military presence and a foreign policy of engagement.
Whether the U.S. is making progress in Afghanistan is beside the point. Our president seems to be just waiting for things to improve, hoping that a speech will help Americans forget that they aren’t. A leader makes things happen. It is as if he isn’t there, free to comment on our government like some innocent, dispassionate bystander. Our head of state talks of the seat of government from the point of view of a spectator, when in fact, he is at the center of the spectacle.
“But the key,” he said, “is to break through the tendency in Washington to just bounce from crisis to crisis.”
Yet Obama has been the crisis president. No need to dwell on how his former chief of staff famously reveled in the opportunities that crisis brings. Whether it’s a debt ceiling negotiation, a tax expiration, the numerous and mounting difficulties of Obamacare, or a 12-year overseas war, Obama simply survives between crises.
And gives speeches about avoiding them.
It might have worked to get him elected twice, but that’s no way to win a war.
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