Balkinization  

Monday, August 17, 2009

President Obama's speech to the VFW

Sandy Levinson

I had intended to make my "return posting" about my summer vacation in the Great American West, which was fascinating, beautiful, and thought-provoking all at once. The Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming, is a truly great museum, worth at least two Michelen stars (i.e., one should make a significant detour to visit it). But, alas, I am provoked instead to offer some quick comments on President Obama's speech today to the VFW, which I confess, on first reading I find appalling in several ways:

1) The speech buys into what might be called the "sentimental militarization" of our society. Thus his statement "....as we protect America, our men and women in uniform must always be treated as what they are: America's most precious resource" (emphasis added). One might, of course, well join in saying that those who serve the US in the armed forces are a "precious resource," and one might even believe that they deserve special solicitude (such as a better-financed VA hospital system) because they are in fact often being put in harm's way. (But does this mean that one should ultimately sacrifice providing medical care for millions of uninsured non-veterans because we should put all of our scarce resources into providing for the "most precious" members of our society?) Does Obama really believe that we have all the guns and all the butter we want, without having to make some very tough choices? We know he can't believe this, since he's just too smart, and has too many first-rate economists around him, but they, presumably, didn't write this speech.

In any event, what does one have to believe about a society in order to proclaim that they are the most precious resource? I respectfully suggest that that is a sentiment more suitable for Sparta than for Athens (or Philadelphia). I don't know that it's worthwhile getting into a comparison of "resources" and deciding whether, say, doctors researching a cure for cancer, entepreneurs and inventors trying to figure out the next transformation that will get our economy truly moving again, artists or poets presenting imaginative visions of our lives, or philosophers or theologians trying to make sense of our existential dilemmas should be at the top. I'm satisfied to say that in a pluralist society like our own, all are "precious resources," as are many others who could easily be listed. I suppose one shouldn't be overly critical of a young President without a day's military experience who panders to an audience that demands such pandering, but it is still dismaying, at least if one takes Obama's rhetoric more seriously than that of the average President precisely because he is indeed more thoughtful than most.

2) But this would be relatively small beer if it were the only problem with his speech. Instead, consider


the fact that he defends our venture in Afghanistan as a "war of necessity." He does this by arguing without, frankly, a shred of evidence, that the Taliban are allied with Al Qaeda in a war against America. If one actually reads such classic books as Lawrence Wright's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Looming Tower, one learns that bin Laden took decided advantage of Taliban's hospitality, and there is relatively little reason to regard the altogether dreadful and backward Taliban as linked in a world-wide struggle against the US. They so easily fit into the now- 2500-year history of local resistance to what is perceived as imperialistic occupation. Again, this is not to say that there is anything desirable about the Taliban. But if we are considering "talking" with the thugs who run Myanmar (which may well be the best policy), we could also contemplate negotiating an end to the Afghan war by negotiating with at least elements of the Taliban.

There is obviously the problem of destabilization in Pakistan. But one might imagine that it would be easier to gain our goals in that respect by a negotiated settlement with those elements of the Taliban who primarily want "their country back" (in the words of the angry mobs besieging American members of Congress). In any event, to say that Afghanistan is a "war of necessity" is to disclaim any genuine human agency for making the choice (or projecting the choice onto those who controlled Afghanistan in 2001 and treating the result as an almost literally endless war, since no one truly believes that we have a plausible policy that will allow us to proclaim "victory" and get out). This is increasingly Obama's war, not "forced" upon him, but one he is choosing to carry one and, indeed, to escalate.

How many billions is President Obama prepared to extract from American taxpayers (and how many lives, both American and Afghan to spend as well) to achieve our goals of constructing a decent and democratic society in Afghanistan? That's surely a worthy goal, but does it really make any sense? Is Obama, after all, just another Wilsonian with grandiose views of American possibility and power? Recall that George W. Bush defended our venture in Afghanistan on the basis of overturning a truly dreadful heritage of patriarchy (though, to be sure, he didn't use that particular term). But the Iraq we're about to depart from doesn't seem to be notably more enlightened in that regard, indeed, probably less so when Sadaam Husseim was in his most secularist phase.

I will end with the ritual incantation that I'm so happy he's President and not John McCain (or, for that matter, Hillary Clinton), but it's getting ever farther from a truly brand new morning in America at least with regard to the use and description of the American military. Is this the change we're supposed to believe in?

Comments:

The flip side of this is that if Obama, a man “without a day’s military experience,” is going to ask American servicemen to sacrifice their lives in two neoconservative wars with dubious connection to the national interest, the least he can do is say really nice things about them. It wouldn’t do to let on that he is our most precious national resource and that they are more like those renewable resources he likes to go on about.

Thanks for enabling comments, by the way.
 

I had two (2) years military experience as a draftee post-Korea, pre-Vietnam, after completing law school and passing the bar. I observed the treatment of officers and non-coms who had served in WW II and Korea who because of their years of service, sought to make the military a career, perhaps to retire with 20 years of service at a relatively young age, and then move on with civilian careers. It was a long way from Vietnam at the time and the federal budget needed trimming. The result was that many of these officers and non-coms were "forced" out of the military before accruing sufficient retirement benefits. So, yes, our servicemen are indeed a valuable resource - until we don't need them any more.

Sandy, welcome back. Hopefully comments will be civil.
 

Sandy:

I am provoked instead to offer some quick comments on President Obama's speech today to the VFW, which I confess, on first reading I find appalling in several ways:

1) The speech buys into what might be called the "sentimental militarization" of our society. Thus his statement "....as we protect America, our men and women in uniform must always be treated as what they are: America's most precious resource" (emphasis added).


Not to worry, Sandy. Obama is simply sucking up to the military to keep the conservative Dem and Indi part of his electoral majority happy. If he genuinely thought this highly of the military, he would not have been calling for their surrender in the middle of the Surge.

2) But this would be relatively small beer if it were the only problem with his speech. Instead, consider the fact that he defends our venture in Afghanistan as a "war of necessity."

Obama must do this or otherwise reveal his campaign pose as a tough wartime CiC who was only against stupid wars to be the lie it was.

If it is any encouragement to you, Obama is declining to engage al Qaeda in its new sanctuary in Somalia.

He does this by arguing without, frankly, a shred of evidence, that the Taliban are allied with Al Qaeda in a war against America.

This is pretty much settled. Both al Qaeda and the Taliban proudly proclaim they are allied. al Qeada's Phantom Army - a brigade size force- is fighting along side the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
 

Apart from whether he really believes it, is Obama even "President" if he is not a natural-born citizen?
 

arguing without, frankly, a shred of evidence, that the Taliban are allied with Al Qaeda in a war against America

That's sad. Of course he knows better. Knowingly telling untruths is not the change I voted for. We already had that; no change needed. Disappointing.

Likewise it's disappointing that Obama has become an active and willing accomplice in the coverup of torture, to use Dan Froomkin's words. No change there either.

And it's disappointing that Obama has caved on the public option for health care coverage. Chances are that'll lead to little change from the present system.

It's not that I'm so confused that I think McCain would have been better. But I reserve the right to be disappointed when President Obama doesn't keep candidate Obama's promises.
 

Will someone please help me with statistics?
Is there an estimate of the number of al Queda menbers
there are in the world? In Saudi Arabia?
 

Farris W asks:

" Will someone please help me with statistics? Is there an estimate of the number of al Queda menbers
there are in the world? In Saudi Arabia?"

If the late Sen. Joe McCarthy were alive, he might tell us how many are in the State Department.

But a good (reasoned) estimate to answer Farris might suggest that the number of al Queda members is small. But why provide such an estimate? It might make us less scared and reduce funding for AfPak and the military-industrial complex. Each night before we go to bed here in the US, we should look under our beds to make sure no al Queda are there.
 

Does this not go to a further point that Why does the United States have about 850 military bases around the world?

Any medical care money there?
 

I too was appalled with Obama's "war of necessity" remark. That is an absurd notion on any front, by any standard; and any informed person knows it.
 

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