As a candidate for president, George W. Bush famously promised to pursue a “humble” foreign policy. The events of 9/11—for Bush akin to a conversion experience—swept humility by the board. The 43rd president found his true calling: Providence was summoning him to purge the world of evil.
When it came to fulfilling this mission, Bush’s subsequent efforts yielded precious little. Recklessness compounded by profound incompetence became the hallmark of his administration. Yet of this there can be no doubt: Until the day he left office, Bush himself remained certain that his intentions were pure and the nation’s cause righteous. In particular, he believed, and believed deeply, in the Iraq war.
Bush’s Freedom Agenda ended in abject failure—no liberalizing tide has swept the Islamic world. The promised Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and the evidence linking Saddam Hussein to Al Qaeda never materialized. Implementing the heinous Bush Doctrine of preventive war in Iraq yielded an insurgency that sent millions fleeing to squalid refugee camps. As a direct result, thousands of American soldiers were killed and many thousands more maimed or otherwise deeply scarred.
Despite all of this and more, George W. Bush never wavered. He remained resolute, his conscience clear. He knew he was doing God’s work. He was—and no doubt remains today—a true believer. The 43d president was a well-intentioned fool, who inflicted grievous harm on his country. Yet when Bush stands before his Maker (or the bar of History), he will say without fear of contradiction: “I did what I thought was right.”
Barack Obama is anything but a fool. Yet when called upon to account for his presidency, honesty will prevent him from making a comparable claim. “The problems I inherited were difficult ones,” he will say. “None of the choices were good ones. Things were complicated.”
The Afghanistan war forms part of that complicated inheritance where good choices are hard to come by. Much as Iraq was Bush’s war, Afghanistan has become Obama’s war. Yet the president clearly wants nothing more than to rid himself of his war. Obama has prolonged and escalated a conflict in which he himself manifestly does not believe. When after months of deliberation (or delay) he unveiled his Afghan “surge” in December 2009, the presidential trumpet blew charge and recall simultaneously. Even as Obama ordered more troops into combat, he announced their planned withdrawal “because the nation that I'm most interested in building is our own.”
The Americans who elected Obama president share that view. Yet the expectations of change that vaulted him to the presidency went well beyond the issue of priorities. Obama’s supporters were counting on him to bring to the White House an enlightened moral sensibility: He would govern differently not only because he was smarter than his predecessor but because he responded to a different—and truer—inner compass.
Events have demolished such expectations. Today, when they look at Washington, Americans see a cool, dispassionate, calculating president whose administration lacks a moral core. For prosecution exhibit number one, we need look no further than the meandering course of Obama’s war, its casualties and costs mounting without discernible purpose.
Obama doesn’t want to be in Afghanistan any more than Benjamin Netanyahu wants to be in the West Bank. Yet like the Israeli prime minister, the president lacks the guts to get out. It’s all so complicated. There are risks involved. Things might go wrong. There’s an election to think about.
So the war continues. Sustaining some artfully updated version of the status quo becomes the easier (or more expedient) course. Thus does a would-be messiah promising salvation and renewal succumb to the imperatives of “politics”—with young soldiers and their families left to bear the consequences.
The question demands to be asked: Who is more deserving of contempt? The commander-in-chief who sends young Americans to die for a cause, however misguided, in which he sincerely believes? Or the commander-in-chief who sends young Americans to die for a cause in which he manifestly does not believe and yet refuses to forsake?
Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. He is the author of, most recently, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War.