By William Fisher
Only the terminally tone-deaf could fail to be astonished by the juxtaposition of last week’s two major speeches – President Bush’s address marking the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war, and Barack Obama’s remarks on race in America.
Because they speak volumes about the profound differences between the two men who delivered them. One came from a man who is either a serial liar, a foreign affairs ignoramus, or a terminal victim of historical amnesia. The other came from a man willing risk his political future on planting both feet on the most divisive Third Rail in American life: Race.
Millions of words have already been written and spoken about the Obama oration, and I will spare you yet another assessment. Except to note that the senator from Illinois seemed to be trying to achieve three objectives: First, putting the incendiary sermons of Rev. Jeremiah Wright behind him; second, winning support from the so-called Reagan Democrats in Pennsylvania and beyond; and third, encouraging all of us to begin a serious national dialogue to help our country understand and accommodate the realities of racial diversity.
My guess is that he probably isn’t going to make much of a dent in the first two of these objectives. And the jury will be out for years on whether the American people are ready to help him achieve his third objective.
This was a speech Sen. Obama didn’t want to make; the incessant soundbite publicity surrounding his pastor left him no choice. He was becoming a victim of guilt by association.
But having said that – and even acknowledging that there were some questions he failed to address – I think that, years from now, his remarks will have earned their place in the pantheon of the most consequential speeches of the last half-century.
The reason is not simply because of the elegance of the prose or its superb delivery. The reason is the subject itself. Millions of Americans, regardless of their skin color, religion, ethnicity, or national origin, harbor varying degrees of distrust of people who are “not like us.” Obama confronted the resentments, the stereotypes, the bigotry, head-on, and suggested the urgency of a national conversation on these issues. It’s an uncomfortable conversation we’ve been only too happy to ignore, and we need to have it.
But saying so was not merely a good and necessary idea – it was an act of extraordinary political audacity.
Contrast that with what the President said on the fifth anniversary of the Iraq invasion. He spoke of the success of the initial military campaign of March 2003, and how quickly our military vanquished Iraq’s scattering army. He then spoke of the success of the "surge" during the last year, noting it has drastically reduced the level of violence in Iraq and turned "the situation in Iraq around." The President paid tribute to the 4,000 Americans and countless Iraqis killed in his “cakewalk.” He told us we were succeeding. Al Qaeda was on the run. The flowers would soon be burying the ‘liberators’. Victory was just over the horizon.
What he conveniently left out were the four-and-a-half years in between – years that demonstrated either the ideological arrogance or the abysmal foreign policy ignorance of the president and his advisors.
No planning for the day after Saddam’s statue toppled. No understanding of the simmering rage of Iraqi Shias, repressed for years by a brutal dictatorship led by a Sunni. No clue that Iran, an overwhelmingly Shia theocracy, would be a predictable Iraqi ally. Not enough troops. An Iraqi government riven by corruption and unwilling or unable to implement any real political reconciliation, although that’s what was posited as the rationale for the surge. An Iraqi government still paralyzed into inaction in delivering the most basic services people expect of their government – water, electricity, education, health care, security. And no exit strategy for America or anyone else.
“There is no military solution” became the non-stop refrain in the president’s symphony of dissonance. But here we are, five years on, with our uniformed forces still trying to apply a military solution.
So much for confronting the issues head-on and telling us the truth. What we got instead was more spin. Mission (almost) Accomplished!
The spin shouldn’t surprise us. It comes from a president who, when he ran for the nation’s highest office in the 2000 election, was implacably opposed to ‘nation-building.’ Now he’s demonstrating yet again that he had (and has) no clue about how nations are built or about our country’s abysmal history of failure in attempting to impose democracy on unwilling despots.
Salivating in the wings to continue this sorry saga is Sen. John McCain – for 100 years, if necessary. The conductor-in-chief of the ‘straight-talk-express’ returned from a visit to Iraq with the same rose-colored vision we heard from the president. The surge is succeeding.
What we should hope to hear from our president, and those who would succeed him, is that the Iraq debacle has put us between a rock and a hard place. The Bush Doctrine has left us with no good options.
We can stay in Iraq and let our soldiers and marines continue to serve as beat cops – chasing al Qaeda while Afghanistan continues its freefall and Pakistan continues to provide safe haven for those wonderful folks who brought us 9/11. Or we can leave Iraq and pray that power, money, territory and oil don’t explode Sunni-Shia violence and Shia-on-Shia violence into an even more catastrophic civil war.
Will no one trust the American people enough to give us a real opinion and a real plan – warts and all?
A presidential candidate who had the courage to confront the ugly reality of race in America should be capable of confronting the ugly reality of Iraq. And so should his opponent.
Sen. Obama and Sen. Clinton have both said they will draw down our troop levels in Iraq, being “as careful getting out as we were careless going in.” But neither has uttered a word to reassure us that they understand the incredible complexities of our dilemma and exactly how they intend to put this genie back in its bottle.
We certainly won’t be hearing anything like that from Mr. McCain. But we have a right to hear it from both the Democrats who are campaigning for our support based on their promises of real change.