The inherent weakness of the Obama approach, demonstrated in the administration’s inconsistent interventions, leaks and cabinet appointments, is that there is no guiding narrative, save the avoidance of any outward comparisons to the prior administration. As one commentator said, the Obama approach to national security evidences not change, but continuity you can believe in. Thus, Gitmo stays open, rendition continues, military tribunals proceed, drone strikes are expanded, the SWIFT program continues, and foreign aid still flows to Egypt.
The problem with this operational continuity in the face of radically changed public rhetoric and strategic withdrawal is that the country becomes alienated from the wars it prosecutes. The nation’s attention fades from the battlefields as the war rages on. Troops continue to fight and die and the nation forgets or wonders why we’re still at war.
This public relations mission muddle is entirely new, and unnecessary. Say what you will of the Bush administration, but its commitment to publicly supporting the War on Terror, vocalizing its rationales, and trumpeting its successes, though they were sporadic and won at great price, gave a measure of credibility to the strategic goals animating the ongoing operations. As President Bush said, we fight them there so we don’t have to fight them here. In furtherance of this, he prosecuted the war abroad and kept the nation safe.
Now the United States withdraws from Iraq and Afghanistan and increasingly fights the War on Terror via Hellfire missiles. It eschews the messy but necessary work of interrogation, which leads to plot disruption. Instead of detaining terrorists at Gitmo, the President sends them to federal court in New York. The Obama War on Terror is both more remote and closer to home. The American people need an explanation for this cognitive dissonance.
A previous war-time leader set the vision this way: “We shall not flag nor fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight…on the seas and oceans; we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air. We shall defend our [land] whatever the cost may be.”
No one expects from the president the oratorical grandeur of Churchill. But the nation, and especially our military, needs a purpose for which to fight, and a strategic goal for which to strive. Ten years after Iraq, as the nation continues to wage war against radical Islamic terrorists across the globe, the president owes our troops, and the nation, at least that much.