Read this sentence, from President Obama’s second Inaugural Address, and get ready to roll your eyes: “A decade of war is now ending.” And this sentence, which showed up seven paragraphs later: “We the people still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.”
Obama is by no means the first chief executive to sell himself as a dove and subsequently govern as a hawk – Woodrow Wilson’s 1916 campaign slogan was “He kept us out of war,” yet six months later he sent us to war – but the chasm between promise and performance continues to widen. Maybe Obama’s metamorphosis was inevitable (have you checked out the world lately?), but voters can be excused for thinking that this is just another politician who has veered from his vows.
Those thoughts came to mind yesterday when I heard that Obama had fired Chuck Hagel. A rare Republican foe of George W. Bush’s Iraq disaster, Hagel was tapped two years ago for the job of Pentagon chief to oversee our military withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan. Basically, he was a peace hire. But now Obama wants a war hire. As a senior administration official anonymously says, “the next couple of years will demand a different kind of focus.”
Hagel was out of step with Obama’s march to perpetual war. Our withdrawal from Iraq – which Obama championed in ’08 (“This election is about ending the Iraq war”) when he successfully outflanked Hillary on the left – has now been halted. This month, Obama doubled the number of U.S. forces on the ground in Iraq, as a response to the ISIS threat. Officially, these people are “advisers,” but we know what that means in practice.
Meanwhile, look at Afghanistan. A mere six months ago, Obama said: “This is the year we will conclude our combat mission in Afghanistan…America’s combat mission will be over by the end of this year.” So much for that pledge. Hagel’s departure coincides with the news, leaked to the press last week, that Obama has reversed course, and is ramping up anew in Afghanistan. Turns out, we will have a combat mission in 2015, fighting the Taliban on the ground. A U.S. official said that the military pushed Obama hard, and “the military pretty much got what it wanted.”
And when you factor in Obama’s air strikes in Syria and Iraq (to date, nearly 1000), and his unprecedented use of drones for “targeted” killings (at least 2000 deaths, including civilians, in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen), you get the full picture: Obama as president is not the ’08 candidate who aimed to “finish the fight” against terrorism, who said there was nothing worse than “fighting a war without end.”
We can argue over who or what is to blame for Obama’s warlike evolution. For instance, the right predictably says that he’s merely trying to compensate for his intrinsic weakness and ineptitude (ISIS is a threat today because Obama pulled out of Iraq too quickly); the left predictably says that he has been forced to mop up Bush’s Middle East slop (ISIS is a threat today because Bush’s invasion of Iraq removed Saddam Hussein, a tyrant who nonetheless stabilized the region).
I’m not going down those rabbit holes today. The bottom line is, presidents all too often are prisoners of circumstance.
Woodrow Wilson was a career academic who had no desire to wage war – until German aggressors started sinking our neutral ships in the Atlantic. FDR didn’t lust for blood (his ’40 campaign pledge: “Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars”), but the Nazis and Japanese forced his hand. Even George W. Bush, lest we forget, vowed in 2000 to conduct a “humble” foreign policy, and in his first months as president he ordered a major assessment of our military deployments aboard. Then came 9/11, and his metamorphosis.
So here’s some handy advice for the 2016 debates: Whenever a candidate declares what he or she intends to do on the world stage, treat yourself to a bathroom break. Sorry if that sounds cynical, but we should know by now that unforseen events will ultimately determine what the winner actually does.
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