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Even before President Obama spoke Tuesday night, the news had leaked that he had authorized 30,000 new troops for Afghanistan.
I didn’t think his speech would reassure me, but it did. A little. What a pleasure it is to hear a president with a sophisticated mind, an ordered thought process and the vocabulary to match them! For people like me, it’s the ultimate seduction.
I bought the Obama campaign narrative, that a bright young man born of a white Kansan mother and a black Kenyan father, could restore hope and change to a nation that since the stolen election of 2000 and its subsequent unprovoked attack on Iraq had been morally on the ropes. When he was still in the Senate, I was captured by Obama’s memoir Dreams of My Father. I liked that he was a law professor with a deep understanding of the Constitution. I was glad that he was not born to privilege that blinded him to the needs of the poor and the weak, that his degrees from two fine universities had been granted for hard work. I rejoiced that he did not claim God was whispering in his ear.
Since his student days at Columbia, Obama has demonstrated a personal work ethic that puts me and most other Americans to shame. Like President Bill Clinton, he seems to have endless energy for the process of governing.Unlike President Clinton, he seems to have governed his personal habits—except for the occasional cigarette.
If you worked on the Obama campaign, you know that narrative was central. You were encouraged to develop your own narrative of how you came to support Obama. Mine was brief, that I was attracted to Obama because he had had the courage to oppose the attack on Iraq, something his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, had failed to do. I glossed over his accompanying observation that we had not finished the job in Afghanistan where Osama bin Laden took refuge eight years ago.
When the president announced that he was taking time to study General Stanley McChrystal’s request for 40,000 troops in Afghanistan, I was relieved. Surely sober reflection would reveal that the time for chasing bin Laden has passed, that the harsh terrain of Afghanistan was littered with the bodies of invaders to which we should not add. Certainly he would see that killing more Muslims, even the Taliban, was not earning us any currency in the broader world, nor would it make us safer. How many US combat troops had to risk their lives and their psyches in pursuit of an illusive victory? How many civilians—women and children—need be sacrificed?
George W. Bush’s descent into the easy demagoguery of war was predictable. Here was a man who had never faced the consequences of his personal actions; why would we expect him to follow a different course when he held all the trappings of the presidency? Why would we trust a man who had skipped out on his national guard duties during the Vietnam war to faithfully prosecute another war? I can only conclude that we were very afraid.
Barack Obama signaled that he is a different kind of man. He pledged to close the base at Guantanamo where men and boys were tortured but never tried for their alleged crimes. He has spoken compassionately to the Muslim world. He visited the returning caskets of the war dead at Andrews Air Force Base. He seemed eager to atone for the sins of his predecessor.
In his West Point speech he laid out his decision to pursue war for a limited time in Afghanistan. He made a concerted effort to show why our situation in Afghanistan is not the one we faced in Vietnam. He tried to convince us that his policy is tied to increasing our security at home and in Western Europe. He has secured multinational support. He reminded us that Pakistan has nuclear weapons which our enemies must not seize. In other words, he laid out a rational argument for his decision. (One argument that the president withheld was the harsh lives of women under the Taliban; I wondered if he thought things could change.)
Sadly, the success of our mission will not rest on how clearly or eloquently the president speaks; it will test the soundness of his judgment.
We’re at a point in our nation’s history with regard to education that people as inspired as Thomas Jefferson and Horace Mann failed to anticipate. We may deplore the madrasas of the Muslim world where boys endlessly chant the Koran, but they’re no more dangerous than many high schools in the West where the young who we failed to teach to read can barely manage their anger and contempt. And out in radioland there are people of all ages hanging on the hope that God wants them to hate their neighbor if she’s a lesbian or has an abortion, who believe that global warming is a hoax and Earth is 10,000 years old, who will defend the privilege of the rich not to pay more taxes even as they are losing their homes and jobs.
While we have schools and universities galore, too many people substitute dreams of riches and celebrity, and mindless religion, for learning. Why pursue higher education, or even a high school diploma, when immediate gratification is close at hand, when you can win a beauty pageant or a “survival” contest or become a hip-hop star? Or maybe God will make you magically rich as the Prosperity Gospel preachers claim. Why read the hard truth of corporate reality and foreign affairs when talk show hosts convince you that the reported news is a conspiracy and that science is a lie? Why examine the wisdom of the ages when so many elected officials and self-ordained evangelists hawk the snake oil of xenophobia?
The rational Obama seems the antithesis of this. Steeped in the literature and history, seasoned by community organizing, able to pursue a course of physical exercise in the midst of a daunting schedule, possessed of a wit that does not demean others, he appears the 21st century’s renaissance man. (Okay, so he doesn’t conduct scientific experiments, play a musical instrument or engage in the plastic arts, but he’s still impressive.)
The problem may be that it’s not enough. Certainly the Kennedy administration offered us a clear example of how well educated, well spoken men could be profoundly wrong. In both Cuba and in Vietnam, they were blinded by the ideology of anti-communism. Let’s hope we won’t follow our fear of radical Islam down the same path.
The stakes have never been higher. If Obama fails, we’re back to the Dark Ages outlined by the Republican Party. So we’d better hope he’s correct that swift and vigorous military action is going to turn the tide against the agents of radical Islam. And that all those fresh-faced West Point cadets will not risk their lives in vain.
His narrative is unfinished, and so is ours.
Random reflections on politics, the media, political activism, women's lives and spirituality, often inspired by travel, cultural events or what I read.
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