Obama and the World Where Nothing is Easy

December 3, 2009

I have a cousin who seriously ponders how Barack Obama gets out of bed every morning–how he slides his legs over the side of the mattress and plants his feet on the floor, knowing that he’s about to face another day in the world where nothing is easy.

Obama knows this to be fact. He said it in his December 1, 2009 speech on Afghanistan: “None of this will be easy.” Since the day he won the election, nothing has been easy, and to me he has become an Atticus Finch for our times. He is the good, decent man who has the job of trying to to make something good and decent out of all the human failing around him. He is the new myth.

On December 1, 2009, our Atticus Finch stood before the cadets at West Point and told them “I owe you a mission that is clearly defined.” And I think he tried his best to give them that.

When I heard that Gordon M. Goldstein’s book, Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam, was required reading for Obama’s staff while the analysis of what to do about Afghanistan was going on, I read the book, too. I agree with Obama, who said in his speech that comparing Afghanistan to Vietnam is a “false reading of history.” Indeed, the country that haunted me through the course of reading Goldstein’s book was not Afghanistan but rather Iraq.

Still, some points from Lessons in Disaster ring true for Afghanistan. As with Vietnam, we have three options: withdraw, maintain the status quo, or increase the amount of young men and women we send there. (I refuse to call them ‘troops” because it dehumanizes them, and therefore desensitizes us to their legless stumps and PTSD symptoms.)

To quote Walter Lippman on Vietnam, as Goldstein does in Lessons, “We are supporting and promoting a cruel and nasty war that has no visible end.” That is certainly how many Americans feel about Afghanistan–especially progressives.

But on December 1, 2009 Obama said there will be an end. He said we need an end because “We must rebuild our strength here at home.” Well, three cheers for that. If we can’t kill very single extremist in the world, maybe we can tune up our homeland security procedures and get more Arabic-speaking people ( even gay ones, heaven forfend!) working in our intelligence offices.

Senator John McCain criticized Obama’s decision to set an end date for the Afghanistan war, saying “. . . [if] we only set an arbitrary date it emboldens our enemies and dispirits our friends.” Senator, does it not also demoralize our citizens when their social needs, their prosperity, their investments for the future, and their national security is endangered by the cost of an endless war?

It’s all about balance. In his speech, President Obama talked about considering responsibility, means, and interest. Right now, I am willing to accept his determination that we have a responsibility, for our national security’s sake, to make an effort in Afghanistan. But I also respect his determination that our means will not allow us to remain there forever, and that our interest in being there is not the paramount concern of our nation.

In 1961, President Kennedy said, ” . . . the United States is neither omnipotent or omniscient  . . . we cannot fight every wrong . . . there cannot be an American solution to every world problem.” In Lessons in Disaster, Goldstein makes much of Kennedy’s farsightedness with regard to foreign policy. I wonder if that attitude is what Caroline Kennedy and Ted Kennedy saw in Barack Obama when they decided to endorse him so wholeheartedly for the presidency.

When the deadline set for Afghanistan in President Obama’s speech is reached, I hope that he will echo Kennedy’s words and say, in effect, “We tried.” Things didn’t turn out the way Attitus Finch hoped they would–the way he worked for them to turn out–either.

Here’s what Atticus had to say about that:

I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when  you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.

In other words, you get out of bed every morning in the world where nothing is easy, and you analyze the situation at hand, and you give it your best effort. Godspeed, Atticus.

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