“In America, and in Iraq,” Vice President Joe Biden assured an audience in Baghdad last December, “the tide of war is receding.” For its callowness, this observation was noteworthy. (The tide of war was not receding from Iraq; Joe Biden was.) President Obama, introducing his plan to cut defense expenditures a few weeks later, offered up this analysis by way of justification: “The tide of war is receding.”
Opponents of Obama’s foreign policy, unwilling to credit the president with coherence in any enterprise apart from campaigning for reelection, will get nothing from these words. In President Obama’s speeches, after all, peace ranks among several reasons to shrink the military budget. In his Pentagon address, the president added this explanation: “We have to renew our economic strength here at home.” Or, as he put it in an address last year explaining his decision to draw down American forces in Afghanistan, “It is time to focus on nation-building here at home.”
The president’s vision of a receding tide of war may be in response to various domestic policy needs. But those who trivialize it entirely do so at the cost of discounting a worldview that appears to be sincerely held. The most recent application of the “tides” metaphor—a proposal to cut, among other elements of America’s defense establishment, ground forces by 100,000—provides the clearest illustration of this view. “Now, we’re turning the page on a decade of war,” the president explained. “Even as our troops continue to fight in Afghanistan, the tide of war is receding.” As to what this means in practice, the president summarized the logic of the cuts this way: “As we look beyond the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—and the end of long-term, nation-building with large military footprints—we’ll be able to ensure our security with smaller conventional ground forces.” Peace, in the president’s telling, is what permits this dividend.
THERE IS A PROBLEM here. To contend that policies conceived and undertaken by this administration have brought “peace” to Iraq, or to Afghanistan, is inconsistent with the facts. Whether a “tide of war” is receding from the international scene, even in the aftermath of the administration’s spectacular targeting of Osama bin Laden, is likewise at least open to dispute. After a few minutes of scrutiny, this analytical basis for momentous policy changes begins to look contrived.
The carnage in Iraq over the past month, as tabulated by the Ministry of Interior in Baghdad, points to one disconnect between White House claims and reality. The prognosis in Kabul, as summarized by January’s National Intelligence Estimate, hardly explains the administration’s self-congratulatory bravado, much less its decision to abandon the field in Afghanistan. Neither does a quick tour d’horizon, from Iran, whose leaders the president’s top intelligence official says “have changed their calculus and are now more willing to conduct an attack in the United States,” on to our neighbor Mexico, offer much else to back up the president’s serene analysis of national security.
Declaring something does not always make it true. Peace cannot be declared in the same way as war. In articulating his vision of peace, the president has likened ours to the post-World War II and post-cold war eras. But these wars had in fact ended before the epochs that followed them. The wars of the past decade have, by contrast, gotten a linguistic cleansing. From this, a supposition about peace—“the tide of war is receding”—has become the foundation of an enormous shift in national priorities.
In its presumptuousness on this score, the administration runs the risk of being prematurely correct. The Obama team’s rhetoric contains an echo of the Clinton years, which reduced everything to a clean narrative of material progress and moral improvement. Or of the 1970s, when another global conflict was presumed to have been concluded before it actually was. Neither era ended well.
Futurism, even the most facile and shallow kind, makes for easy policy. Thus, as the age of “nation-building with large military footprints” recedes along with the tide of war, the president envisions an “agile, flexible, ready and technologically advanced” force winning tomorrow’s wars—helped especially, to judge from his defense budget proposal, by a lethal mix of air power and raiding forces.
Where all this leads is clear. Prior to the war in Iraq, the administration of George W. Bush, and especially the Pentagon under the tutelage of Donald Rumsfeld, encouraged the conceit that an identical recipe obviated the need to think much about plans and contingencies. Rumsfeld entertained himself with tantalizing visions of a military revolution that would change the very nature of warfare. Among its most fervent advocates, and continuing years into a bloody war, this prospective revolution fed a ruinous obsession with technology as the defining element in modern warfare. Has nothing been learned and nothing remembered from this experience? Is the “end of long term nation-building” really the best today’s policy planners can do?
There is a final and dismal parallel with the previous administration here. The Bush team, opting for both guns and butter, governed in wartime as if it were at peace. There would be no mobilization, no taxes, no vacations cut short. The decision was irreversible.
This was the state of affairs that the president inherited in 2008, made worse by a home front coming apart at the seams. Obama correctly assessed his predicament. “War” became what “Afghanistan” was for Bush—a lesser priority. Even as he has presided over a record of frenetic military activism, the president has created the impression of a nation at peace, secure in a world where the “tide of war is receding.” Politically, the paradigm has served the president well. Empirically, it has not. Americans do not need Obama to be a “war president.” They need him to be candid. Tides do not recede for long.
Lawrence F. Kaplan is a contributing editor for The New Republic.