Echoes of the Selling of a War

In his Oval Office address, President Obama hit many of the right notes, especially in the half of the speech referring to the Iraq War.  There was much to admire, in terms of both the policy and the politics.  He appropriately reminded us of the conflict's enormous costs but was upbeat about what U.S. forces had achieved.  He emphasized the responsibilities that Iraqis must assume for their own security.  He talked about a continuing "partnership" with Iraq but made clear his intention to bring the last U.S. troops out of Iraq on schedule by the end of next year, leaving no apparent wiggle room of the sort that might have been hoped for by those who have been talking up the idea of negotiating a new agreement with Baghdad to keep the troops there longer.  And although Mr. Obama can hold his head high as someone who opposed from the outset this ill-advised war, he did not dwell on the colossal error of launching it or the unseemly methods that were used to get most of the country to go along with the idea of launching it.  Instead, he was extremely gracious in referring to his predecessor, while mentioning in passing the obvious fact that he and George W. Bush had been on opposite sides of the issue.

These positive aspects of the speech made it all the more chilling to hear, just half a dozen sentences after the reference to the president's disagreement with Mr. Bush over Iraq, this justification for Mr. Obama's war, the ongoing counterinsurgency in Afghanistan:

We must never lose sight of what’s at stake. As we speak, Al Qaeda continues to plot against us, and its leadership remains anchored in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan. We will disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda, while preventing Afghanistan from again serving as a base for terrorists. And because of our drawdown in Iraq, we are now able to apply the resources necessary to go on offense. In fact, over the last 19 months, nearly a dozen Al Qaeda leaders — and hundreds of Al Qaeda’s extremist allies — have been killed or captured around the world.             

Neither this passage nor other statements from the Obama administration about Afghanistan comes close to the manufactured issues and other grossly misleading aspects of the Bush administration's selling of the Iraq War.  But the passage is eerily reminiscent of how that earlier sales campaign relied on rhetorical legerdemain to portray the war as an inseparable part of a worldwide effort to keep Americans safe from terrorism.  The blurriness of the rhetoric engages emotions about the group that perpetrated 9/11, while diverting attention from more specific questions that a sound case for war would have to answer.  In a convenient geographic amalgamation, we hear about the "border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan" without being reminded that most of Al Qaeda is on one side of that border while our troops and the counterinsurgency are on the other side.  We hear about preventing Afghanistan from "again serving as a base for terrorists" without being told whether the Al Qaeda leadership would see any advantage in moving back to Afghanistan, whether a victorious Afghan Taliban would want Al Qaeda back, whether we couldn't use air power to prevent any attempt to re-establish a base there, whether Al Qaeda can't use other countries if it really wants a territorial base, and whether any kind of territorial base makes enough difference in the threat a terrorist group poses to make the immense cost of the continuing war worthwhile.  And finally the rhetoric slides into talk about terrorists being killed or captured around the world--efforts that are not part of the war in Afghanistan and from which that war, to some degree like the war in Iraq, is at best a diversion and at worst a stimulus to the breeding of still more terrorists.

Mr. President, you have done an excellent job of distancing yourself, clearly but gracefully, from the misdirections of your predecessor.  Please do not campaign for your policies with methods that are disturbingly similar to how your predecessor sold the country a tragic bill of goods.