President Obama delivered a carefully-constructed and nuanced call Tuesday night for the extension of the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan. Obama came to the wrong conclusion about a military adventure that should be coming to a conclusion, rather than ramping up. But Obama's attempt to find a middle ground between anti-war forces and supporters of a Iraq-style occupation at least recognized that the debate over Afghanistan has many sides and many players.
At times, Obama seemed so tortured in his attempt to placate both those who want to send more troops (he's dispatching an additional 30,000) and those who want a bring-the-troops-home exit strategy (he says they will start coming home in 2011) that his speech had the ring of Greek tragedy - or, perhaps, "fall of the Roman Empire" history.
Unfortunately, there has been nothing artful about the media coverage of Obama's speech.
Most of the coverage has followed the predictable patterns of the post-September 11 "war on terror" era.
Compromise, even bad compromise that keeps the U.S. involved in a quagmire, is portrayed as rational, and probably necessary, while blunt calls for rapid withdrawal or all-out war are dismissed as outside the realm of reason.
So it is that we are left with in murky-middle moment where prominent Democrats rally, for the most part, to back the president even when he embarks on what House Appropriations Committee chair David Obey, D-Wisconsin, refers to as a "fool's errand," while prominent Republicans such as House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, whine that the president is not doing enough.
In fact, the picture has more shades of grey than the pundits would have us believe.
There remains substantial Democratic discomfort with Obama's plan to surge tens of thousands ofd additional troops into what - despite all that talk of an exit strategy - is sounding more and more like an endless war of whim. One hundred members of the House, the vast majority of them Democrats, have now sponsored Massachusetts Congressman Jim McGovern's call for the development of a formal plan to bring the troops home. In the Senate, Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold and Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders make no secret of the fact that they believe the president is making a mistake, as does House Appropriations Committee chair David Obey, D-Wisconsin, the author of the "fool's errand" characterization.
Perhaps even more significant, however, is the fact that there is a good deal of division within the ranks of the Republican caucus, particularly in the U.S. House. Not every member of the Grand Old Party is banging on Obama for taking too long to do too little in Afghanistan. In fact, some key congressional conservatives are echoing the call of liberals for a "Bring the Troops Home" plan.
The first cosponsor of Jim McGovern's resolution was North Carolina Republican Walter Jones Jr., who says of the Afghanistan occupation: "We're trying to police the world. Every great nation prior to America that tried to police the world has failed economically. That's why I tell people that I'm a Pat Buchanan American. I want to stop trying to take care of the world and fix this country. Our problems are so deep that there is no easy way to fix them."
Jones has repeatedly gone to the floor of the House to deliver calls for an exit strategy, as has his fellow "old-right" conservative, Texas Congressman Ron Paul.
Among the other stalwart conservatives who do not merely reject a surge but who are outspoken in their advocacy for the development of a plan to withdraw U.S. forces in Afghanistan are California's Dana Rohrbacher and Tennessee's John Duncan Jr.
They were joined on the eve of Obama's speech at West Point by an unexpected Republican dissenter, Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz, who used a speech Monday at the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah.to declare: "Mr. President, it is time to bring our troops home."
Chaffetz, a pristine conservative by just about any standard, says Obama's surge strategy makes no sense.
"We're talking about having nearly 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. If the mission is to root out al-Qaida, we do not need to risk the lives of tens of thousands of troops to fulfill it," the congressman, who has traveled to Afghanistan and met with the top generals on the ground there, argues that: "If our mission in Afghanistan is simply to protect the populace and build the nation, then I believe the time has come to bring our troops home. ... I am opposed to nationbuilding. I do not believe it is the role and responsibility of the United States of America to be involved in every aspect of the globe."
Chaffetz announced his stance prior to Obama's speech because he did not want to be seen as just another Republican critic of the president. And he did so with a seriousness that merits attention, issuing a detailed assessment of the conflict and of his views regarding more serious threats facing the United States.
The Utah Republican is not an anti-war firebrand - he wants out of Afghanistan; but if the U.S. is going to maintain a military presence there, the congressman suggests that it might as well go all out militarily.
Chaffetz is trying to push the envelope, maybe even to open the debate up - within his own party and beyond its boundaries.
That's something Obey is trying to do with his talk of a "war surtax."
One is a conservative. One is a progressive.
One is a Republican. One is a Democrat.
But these two members of the House, and a good many of their colleagues in both parties, are offering every indication that they are ready for a real debate.
And that debate is what is needed. Indeed, hte best news from Tuesday was the signal, sent before the president's speech by progressive Democrats (including Senator Feingold and Congressman McGovern), and a few conservative Republicans, that efforts might be made to block funding for at least some aspects of the troop surge.
No matter how Congress might eventually decide the issue, that's a discourse and a vote that Congress should embrace.
The executive branch is not supposed to define the discussion about war.
Presidents, according to the Constitution, are supposed to engage in a dialogue with Congress -- the legislative branch that was empowered to check and balance the executive precisely because the founders wanted to "chain the dogs of war."
Obama laid out an agenda Tuesday night. Now, the Congress should start debating whether it wants to go along with that agenda. And the media should cover that debate - not just as Democrats versus Republicans, or liberals versus conservatives. It should pay attention to all the scope and character that is on display.
This is the essential discourse of the republic - the discourse that James Madison, the father of our Constitution imagined, and demanded, when he warned more than 200 years ago:
Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other.
War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.
In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people.
The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manner and of morals, engendered in both.
No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.
War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement. In war, a physical force is to be created; and it is the executive will, which is to direct it.
In war, the public treasuries are to be unlocked; and it is the executive hand which is to dispense them.
In war, the honors and emoluments of office are to be multiplied; and it is the executive patronage under which they are to be enjoyed; and it is the executive brow they are to encircle.
The strongest passions and most dangerous weaknesses of the human breast; ambition, avarice, vanity, the honorable or venal love of fame, are all in conspiracy against the desire and duty of peace.
Democrats and Republicans both like to claim Madison as their founding father.
So be it.
Let's be Madisonian.
Now that the president has spoken, let's have a real debate about whether he is right -- and about whether this nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.