“There wasn’t, for instance, all that much in the speech about the Taliban. Obama never spoke about their human-rights abuses, which is the kind of thing you do when you want to emotionally invest Americans in the war. He never really tied the Taliban to al Qaeda. He said the U.S. would support a political reconciliation with the Taliban as long as they supported the Afghan constitution, but he never spelled out what that means, for instance, in terms of women’s rights. And since it’s a safe bet that not many Americans have recently read the Afghan constitution, he pretty much left himself free to accept any deal that Afghanistan’s warlords cook up. If you’d come down from Mars, you’d understand why America was withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, but you wouldn’t understand why Obama sent more there in the first place. If he ever believed that American security really depends on what happens to the Taliban, he didn’t show it tonight.”Like a lot of liberals, Obama reflexively regards overseas military ventures as a distraction from more important domestic challenges. The leitmotif of last night’s speech—that we need to wind down nation-building in Afghanistan so that we can get on with nation-building at home—is a case in point. That rhetorical gesture has been a part of Democratic ideological muscle memory since George McGovern implored America to “come home” from Vietnam. Yet it’s still a little unsettling to hear Obama deploy it for at least two reasons:
First, “come home America” sounded natural coming from McGovern because he wasn’t proposing a draw down that would leave twice as many troops in Vietnam as were there the day he took office. Moreover, he wasn’t the guy who’d escalated our military involvement in Vietnam in the name of promoting a vital national security interest. Obama ordered a troop surge in December 2009 to implement a counter-insurgency strategy on the theory that we couldn’t afford not to finish the nation-building job we'd undertaken in Afghanistan.
Yet, while he had a lot to say last night about our success in killing terrorists, he said very little about the progress we’d made in leaving Afghanistan better off than we found it. You couldn’t help wondering whether Obama’s either neglecting to tell us that he has changed his mind about the nature and relative urgency of the Afghanistan mission, or didn’t really mean what he said about it in December 2009 and on the 2008 campaign trail.
Second, what’s the nation-building mission at home that’s too important for us to fritter away scarce resources in Afghanistan? As far as I can tell, Obama’s domestic agenda is now pretty much a matter of digging in his heels to resist Republican efforts to dismantle the welfare state. That’s a worthy mission for a liberal president and there’s no denying that the money we save in Afghanistan can be used to sustain a social safety net at home that we otherwise couldn’t afford. But, any way you look at it, that’s more a matter of plastering over widening cracks in a decaying edifice than of building anything new. Under the circumstances, Obama's efforts to inspire us with talk of domestic nation-building are merely funny.
So Obama’s “coming home” rhetoric was perfectly apt, except for the part about why we’re leaving Afghanistan and the part about what we’re going to do when we come home. Have you ever noticed how much of Obama’s eloquence is a matter of applying the familiar tropes of 1970s liberalism to realities to which they no longer apply?