President Obama's speech to Congress last week concluded on a moving and uplifting note, an evocation of the late Senator Kennedy’s appeal to the nation’s character and moral purpose as the ground of change. All at once, with his forceful display of leadership, the president had made the transformation of American society, beginning with health care reform, seem possible. But, like a dark storm cloud edging in from the horizon, memory intruded on the high-minded moment.
“Because it is right, because it is wise, and because for the first time in our history it is possible to conquer poverty,’’ another president told the same audience, “I submit for the consideration of Congress and the country the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964.’’ Lyndon Johnson’s proposals for the Great Society represented the last time that a president held out such promise as the nation saw in Obama last week. Indeed, today’s health care reform takes as its starting point LBJ’s success in establishing Medicare and Medicaid. Obama is often compared to John F. Kennedy, but Johnson may be the more apt analogy - if not yet because of shared legislative accomplishments (in winning appropriations for Head Start, Vista, Model Cities, and the Job Corps, Johnson erected actual pillars of the Great Society), then because Obama’s opportunity for historic social transformation is also about to be squandered by a misbegotten war.
Or rather, two wars. The elephants in the congressional chamber last week were not the scowling Republicans, but Iraq and Afghanistan, neither of which was mentioned. In both places, American wars are quite clearly spinning toward catastrophe. In Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, after rigged elections, is an illegitimate ruler, and American collusion with him corrupts whatever good intentions we had. The Taliban is more powerful than ever, responding to Kabul’s corruptions and US escalations as if they are insurgency growth hormones. All that American commanders can think to do with their failed strategies is redouble them.
In Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is headed toward his own dubious election, coming in January, as his Shiite coalition crumbles, Sunnis openly sympathize with insurgents, and Kurdish alienation adds to the decentralized chaos. Meanwhile, Iraqi security forces are overwhelmed by renewed violence, and the US determination to keep the three blocs together in one nation is overseen by Vice President Joe Biden, who spent the two years of his presidential campaign passionately denouncing the idea. US commanders have no clue how to extricate their forces from this mess.
Colin Powell famously echoed Tom Friedman’s Pottery Barn Rule: You break it, you own it. But Powell was wrong. We broke Iraq and Afghanistan, and now they own us. The main effect of our intervention in both places is that endemic conflicts (which predate our presence) are now being fought with unimaginably more lethal firepower. Especially dangerous is the Taliban’s transformation by its war with America from a crackpot cult with local reach into a mythic resistance force drawing ever wider support.
The scale of President Obama’s military mistake is becoming clear exactly as the moment of his greatest opportunity to improve American life has arrived. The tragedy, as with Lyndon Johnson, will be the destruction of his proposed social transformation by his simultaneous opting for war, as his core supporters among liberals and Democrats feel bound to oppose him. The day after Obama’s unifying speech on health reform, Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, sent a foreboding warning on Afghanistan, ahead of an all but certain request from the Pentagon for a major escalation there. The storm cloud approaches.
In citing Ted Kennedy last week, the president said that health reform is “above all a moral issue’’ involving “fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.’’ But that exactly defines what is at stake in our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our troops being uselessly killed is a moral issue. That internecine violence among sects and factions a world away grows worse because of us is a moral issue. Obama has continued the Pottery Barn carelessness of his predecessors. For the sake of social justice, American character, and the hope of his own presidency, the time has come to stop it.