Obama’s Troop Decision Betrays his Public Image

Richie DeMaria

On Dec. 3, 2009, in a New York Review of Books piece entitled “Afghanistan: The Betrayal,” journalist and historian Garry Wills voiced his disillusionment over President Obama’s proposed deployment of 30,000 or more soldiers to Afghanistan. Obama, he wrote, “has now officially adopted his very own war, one with all the disqualifications that he attacked in the Iraq engagement.”

Obama’s move is wrongheaded and worrying, and it is, in some ways, a betrayal, but it is unsurprising. At the very least, he has not betrayed a prior stance. As Wills’ critics have responded, Afghanistan was Obama’s preferred war to begin with. During his campaign, he made clear that Afghanistan was his priority in the war on terror. “[Afghanistan] has to be our central focus, the central front, on our battle against terrorism,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” in July of 2008. In the same month, according to the Boston Globe, he said, “It is time to go after the Al Qaeda leadership where it actually exists.” Obama made clear that he believed in the justness of an Afghan war and that we ought to concentrate our efforts there.

In his campaign, Obama expressed a conservatism that, when it came into play in his actual presidency, surprised many left-leaning supporters. Obama has not switched positions, but has instead betrayed a liberal idea of his democratic position, or a hope of what his position on war might be. The deployment is a betrayal in that it went against the imaginary Obama many thought they elected.

Did they elect Obama? Did anyone elect Obama? Is Obama in office, and was he ever? From even before his campaign, the man, whoever or whatever he was, served as the symbol and agent of all manner of fantasies: the world peacemaker, the second coming of Abe Lincoln or MLK Jr., the Nazi con artist, the Antichrist, the end of race, the beginning of providence. His election inspired an epidemic of sex dreams (see Judith Warner’s Feb. 5 New York Times article, “Sometimes a President is Just a President”) and messianic depictions. A vote for Obama was, more often than not, an interpretive and aspirational vote for his hopeful rhetoric – we elected a figment.

In this sense, Obama has betrayed no one but those who, out of hope, misread him. Wills’ critics are right – this was coming all along. Obama’s supporters are not the only misreaders here, however. In his proposed deployment of 30,000 troops or more, Obama has committed a different, larger betrayal toward a nation already stretched at its limits. It’s not unlikely that Obama has entirely misread the urgency of issues closer to home, as well as the Afghanistan situation, in his prioritizing and his belief that a surge will somehow function any differently than Bush’s.

Obama said that a “false reading of history” lies behind every Vietnam-Afghanistan comparison, but he’s the misinterpreter – what kind of “change” will a huge troop increase bring, but more violence? Where’s the hope in a 2011 exit when wars can’t end so conveniently, especially one as hopelessly lost as this? Obama, in his absolutist rhetoric about Afghanistan, is mythologizing war in the exact way politicians did during the Vietnam War and Bush did in the Iraq War – betraying our armed forces with false convictions.

Obama, in his decision, has not only dashed the dreams of those who hoped for something more (no matter how unfounded their hopes), but has also betrayed his already hurting nation. His plan will deepen debt and end lives. This shows not only the danger of reading so uncritically and faithfully into a politician’s campaign rhetoric, but the even greater danger of that politician employing that rhetoric to justify military action.

Maybe there’s hope that Obama will change his mind. For now, though, disappointingly, we have to quote Judith Warner: Sometimes a president is just a president after all.

Richie DeMaria is a senior ECLS major. He can be reached at rdemaria@oxy.edu.

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