Our shrinking president

I didn’t watch any of the TV commentary on President Obama’s speech last night. But J.E. Dyer at Contentions informs us that the “TV commentariat rose up to advance the narrative that Obama had no obligation to acknowledge Bush’s surge decision, because there was never a valid justification for regime-changing Iraq to begin with.”
This is the kind of non sequitur that, I suppose, keeps me away from post-speech TV commentary. Let’s note first that premise here — that there was no valid justification for our action in Iraq — is controversial and, in my view, false. A better premise (more apt and less controversial) would have been that Bush doesn’t deserve credit for the surge decision because he should have formulated the correct strategy for preventing, or dealing with, the insurgency in the first place.
In any event, the “commentariat’s” conclusion doesn’t follow from its premise, or even from the better one I just described. Unless President Obama believes that the war in Iraq is so unjust and dishonorable that it would be better to lose the war than win it, he must acknowledge that decisions that help us avoid defeat in that war are good and worthwhile decisions. Similarly, unless he believes that an Iraq that features the large-scale massacre of civilians is better than one in which there is far less violence, he must acknowledge that decisions that help significantly reduce violence are also good and worthwhile.
Because President Bush’s decisions in connection with the surge helped avoid a U.S. defeat and save Iraqi lives, they are praiseworthy, and Obama should give Bush credit for the surge whatever he thinks of the original mission. And he certainly should so in a speech that (a) lauds the current situation in Iraq and (b) purports to turn the page on Iraq and put domestic acrimony behind us.
Fallability on big questions (assuming now that Bush erred in invading Iraq) should not forever preclude one from being praised. Obama himself was wrong about the surge. If his prescription had been followed in 2007, Iraq would probably have suffered a monumental bloodbath, and al Qaeda might well control Anbar province. But that shouldn’t bar Obama from receiving praise if he helps navigate Iraq through its current (much less severe) difficulties. The same idea applies if, after a year-and-a-half of stumbling, Obama finally finds the correct recipe for helping get our economy back on course.
Obama has developed a specialty of telling us, in balanced-sounding terms, what major players have done right and what they done wrong. The players he has pontificated about in these terms include the Arabs, the Israelis, the Africans, and the United States itself. I would argue that, assuming this is worth doing, it is possibly the only thing Obama does well as president.
But when the best Obama can say of George W. Bush, in a speech delivering the “summation” on Iraq, is that he is patriotic and supports the troops, Obama isn’t even performing his “philosopher king” role well.
I’m no longer bothered by this sort of thing, having resigned myself long ago to the fact that Obama lacks the grace we all should hope for in any U.S. president. At this point, he is only hurting himself, as he looks smaller and smaller with each appearance.


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