Exit Strategies

Goodbye to All That

Up until September 15, 2008, when the American political scene was thrust into a new dimension by the financial crisis, if someone had told me that George W. Bush’s successor would go on national television and unequivocally announce, “American combat mission in Iraq has ended. Operation Iraqi Freedom is over,” I would have said that this would be nothing less than a political shock -- granting relief to many (including me), while enraging neocons and conservative die-hards, who’d be acrimoniously debating the matter for at least the next year.

Not too long ago, Left-liberal pranksters created a parody edition of the New York Times with the headline “IRAQ WAR ENDS,” making it clear that this policy was the Progressives’ ultimate project. In turn, it’s hard to underestimate the degree to which the development of the “conservative” blogosphere was informed and motivated by war-agitation -- many of its most prominent sites are all but unthinkable without updates from Baghdad, “Remember Munich!” polemics, and various accusations of “treason” directed at prominent liberal commentators. My old employer The American Conservative was founded, in 2002, at the point that the neocons had Iraq in their sights, and most of its energies were (and are) dedicated to opposing Republican foreign policy. For good reason.

Knowing all this, it’s almost eerie how little interest the chattering class, and the American public, is taking in what was once the fantasy and nightmare of so many. Movement conservatives and neocons could only muster muted patriotic utterances about “the troops”; liberals seem less than enthused. (As of this writing (midnight, Aug. 31-Sept. 1), all is quiet on “The Corner,” and the über-hawkish PowerLine blog is absolutely silent on the matter. This might all change tomorrow morning, but I sense it won’t.)

(The hawkish-ist thing I could find is a video of Sean Hannity interviewing John McCain. Many of the “War on Terror” leitmotifs are revived, but neither really has his heart in it. (They both claim, by the way, that Iraq should be remembered as a great “victory” and that we shouldn’t leave because the job isn’t done… ))

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t lament the passing of the political discourse of the 2000s, which was cringe-inducing on all sides, and I certainly relish the thought of the neocons losing influence. (I also think that the Alternative Right needs to develop an identity beyond “the neocons are insane, and we oppose them!”) I just thought it’d all go with bang and not a whimper.

Now, none of this means that Obama will actually be antiwar -- though for a few moments during his speech, I was reminded of why some sensible people voted for him purely out of disgust at Bush and the neocons and fear of McCain and another round of “Freedom Spreading.”

Here’s the crux of the speech:

Americans across the political spectrum supported the use of force against those who attacked us on 9/11. Now, as we approach our 10th year of combat in Afghanistan, there are those who are understandably asking tough questions about our mission there. But 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.

Within Afghanistan, I have ordered the deployment of additional troops who–under the command of General David Petraeus –are fighting to break the Taliban’s momentum. As with the surge in Iraq, these forces will be in place for a limited time to provide space for the Afghans to build their capacity and secure their own future. But, as was the case in Iraq, we cannot do for Afghans what they must ultimately do for themselves. That’s why we are training Afghan Security Forces and supporting a political resolution to Afghanistan’s problems. And, next July, we will begin a transition to Afghan responsibility. The pace of our troop reductions will be determined by conditions on the ground, and our support for Afghanistan will endure. But make no mistake: this transition will begin – because open-ended war serves neither our interests nor the Afghan people’s.

I don’t know whether Obama is indicating that he’ll begin an orderly drawdown in 2012 (“transition to Afghan responsibility”) or whether, much as he hinted in the summer of 2008, he will seize on Afghanistan as his “good war” and push across the border (“al Qaeda continues to plot against us,” AfPak “border region,” “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda.”) Or if he himself knows. What’s for certain is that no lesson has been learned.