By Peter Feaver
President Obama spoke to the annual Veterans of Foreign Wars convention today. Over the last 8 years, this and the related American Legion conference (also usually in August) have become important venues for presidential messaging on the conflict formerly known as the global war on terror. If you want an interesting comparison/contrast, read President Bush’s address to the American Legion in August 2007, a period when the president was locked in a different tough political battle with domestic critics. Back then, of course, Bush was locked in a tough fight with critics who wanted to shut down the surge, whereas now Obama is locked in a tough fight with critics who want to shut down his health care plan -- perhaps the comparison is a stretch but, as they say, it is bloggable.
There is a general form to these speeches and Obama largely followed it -- lots of applause lines about gratitude to veterans and their families for their sacrifice, promises to honor those sacrifices, and calls on Americans to support veterans. The speeches also provide a time to highlight the president’s basic vision for national security during these current conflicts. As far as I can see, there does not appear to be a real news hook in today’s speech, but some bits struck me:
1. The president reiterated the “war of necessity, war of choice” distinction which, as I have argued before, just does not stand up to rigorous scrutiny. It is short-hand for “wars I support, wars I do not support.” Serious security studies specialists argued against the Afghanistan war from the outset and even more argue that we should walk away from Afghanistan now. I do not endorse their views, but I say that they are an existence proof that the necessity vs. choice distinction is more rhetorical than real. It may even be misleading, since we have lots of choices ahead in Afghanistan and it is entirely possible for us -- either the president or the public or both -- to get those choices wrong.
2. Calling the fight in Afghanistan necessary was as far as he went in terms of rallying the American people to the war. I would have liked to hear a bit more rallying than that. I suspect the speechwriters were also very deliberate in using the word “success” rather than “win” or “victory” in terms of Afghanistan. Doubtless, they have heard that our NATO allies believe that there is a meaningful distinction -- “success” being much less demanding than “victory.” Personally, I find the “success” vs. “victory” argument strained, and I have yet to see much systematic polling evidence that shows the public draws that nuanced a distinction. For what it is worth, in the academic work I did with my Duke colleagues Chris Gelpi and Jason Reifler, we treated “success” and “victory” as largely synonymous.
3. He declared “mission success” in Afghanistan and Iraq -- or words to that effect:
In recent years, our troops have succeeded in every mission America has given them, from toppling the Taliban to deposing a dictator in Iraq to battling brutal insurgencies. At the same time, forces trained for war have been called upon to perform a whole host of missions. Like mayors, they've run local governments and delivered water and electricity. Like aid workers, they've mentored farmers and built new schools. Like diplomats, they've negotiated agreements with tribal sheikhs and local leaders...
4. Is this really any different from Bush’s much maligned speech aboard the aircraft carrier? Yes, but only in the sense that no one will complain about it.
5.The entire speech reminded me of then candidate-Bush’s Citadel speech, but this was especially striking in the section where Obama talks about defense transformation. It is worth pausing and reflecting on the fact that the Citadel speech was nearly a decade ago, and yet the goal of cost-effective defense transformation remains as elusive as ever.
All in all, the speech was fine and I am glad that the White House has continued the tradition of speaking out on national security during the August recess. I suspect, however, that other news events will likely have greater impact on national security, and other White House messaging will likely preoccupy the talking head community.