...10 years ago, the United States and our allies went to war to make sure that al Qaeda could never again use this country to launch attacks against us. Despite initial success, for a number of reasons, this war has taken longer than most anticipated. In 2002, bin Laden and his lieutenants escaped across the border and established safe haven in Pakistan. America spent nearly eight years fighting a different war in Iraq. And al Qaeda’s extremist allies within the Taliban have waged a brutal insurgency.
But over the last three years, the tide has turned. We broke the Taliban’s momentum. We’ve built strong Afghan security forces. We devastated al Qaeda’s leadership, taking out over 20 of their top 30 leaders. And one year ago, from a base here in Afghanistan, our troops launched the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. The goal that I set -- to defeat al Qaeda and deny it a chance to rebuild -- is now within our reach. [Emphasis mine.]
He then switches to what he's done: decimated both the leadership and foot soldiers of al Qaeda, building up Afghan forces, and, of course, killing the man responsible for 9/11. Through subtle rhetoric, he's leaving no room for Republicans to claim any credit for the successes in Afghanistan, which should have been the only theater of war post-9/11. The Cheney-Bush regime abandoned Afghanistan soon after bombing whatever was left to be bombed, leaving it to fester and teeter on the precipice of becoming what it had been during the 90s: a failed state, lawless, haven for criminals of all stripes.
In a ten minute speech, he again lays out the case for an Obama Doctrine of foreign policy. It's muscular, but not belligerent. It relies on spreading the costs and burdens among allies; multilateral in words and actions, eschewing the cowboy mentality of most of today's Republican Party. It firmly pursues US interests abroad, but doesn't define those interests as ones of empire, where every little blip on the radar is seen as an existential threat to the nation, mandating a military response. It's a foreign policy that actually values democratic progress in countries where democracy has been wanting; it's hard to imagine a President McCain telling Hosni Mubarak that it was time to step down. By being squarely on the side of people in the developing world who are seeking to secure democratic freedoms, the Obama Doctrine puts the US not only on the right side of policy, but on the right side of politics. The improved standing of the US on the world stage is evidence of this. The strong-arming of US friends and allies to support some political initiative is no longer necessary; under Obama, the US is no longer pursuing the objective of empire through war, but the objective of a broad-based, stable peace.
But the past few days have seen a turning of the tide in the domestic political arena as well.
Ever since Vietnam, Democrats have been painted by their right wing opponents and being soft on national security, even to the point of being treasonous. The Republican refrain since 1968 has been that Democrats can't be trusted to keep the country safe from enemies, and can't be relied upon to protect allies—whether from external threats, or in the case of the dictatorships we've supported in the name of "stability", from their own people. Only Republicans could ensure that the US remained dominant in world affairs, and maintain the imperial Pax Americana.
The problem with that framing is that it's a right wing frame. Democrats never assailed the assumptions behind the GOP rhetoric, that there was only one way to keep the US safe, only one way to conduct foreign affairs. Democrats basically accepted the Republican stance on what an acceptable foreign policy was, and, unsurprisingly, suffered for it. From Dukakis in the tank to Clinton being accused of a "wag the dog" war in the Balkans, Democrats fell into the Republican trap, over and over.
Obama is reordering the terms of the debate. And he started in the most audacious manner, by releasing an ad on the anniversary of bin Laden's death that uses Mitt Romney's own words against him. By reminding voters that Romney claimed that he wouldn't "move heaven and earth" to catch Osama bin Laden, and doing it in the context of an ad in which the President claims credit for killing bin Laden, he takes a Republican tactic and turns it adroitly against them. That has left the Republicans and Romney sputtering, outraged that Obama would dare to use the death of bin Laden politically.
The ad brings to mind a scene in The Once and Future King by T.H. White. In it, Arthur has recently become king, and is quite mortified about the way in which war is conducted. His knights don't attack the enemy's knights, but instead attack the ill-armed foot soldiers. Enemy knights do the same to Arthur's infantry. A great slaughter is had, but the heavily armored knights come away unscathed. Arthur reflects that this is very unfair, as wars are basically waged to achieve some aim dear to the hearts of the nobility. So he decrees that his knights won't attack an enemy's foot soldiers, but go straight at its knights. When the new policy is initiated, there's a great uproar. "It just isn't done," the knights say.
President Obama is not acting like the typical Democrat. He's not fighting the GOP on its terms. He is, in fact, attacking their knights—and he's not doing it for show, but to inflict the most punishment he can. He's not shying away from fights, and choosing his battles to be fought on grounds most advantageous to him.
When the ad came out, Romney was left sputtering that "of course" he would've ordered bin Laden's killing. "Even Jimmy Carter" would've done so, he said dismissively. Suddenly, Romney had grown a spine.
That spine implant didn't last long. The man who "of course" would've ordered bin Laden's killing was forced by his party's religious wing to push out his openly gay foreign policy spokesman. If he couldn't stand up to the religious right, how could he have ordered an operation that had only a 50% chance of success? It beggars the imagination. And by the time that the President had finished his speech at Bagram, Romney was left with no other option than that of praising Obama's Afghanistan visit.
The GOP has no answer for Obama. It's like a sports team that has one mode of playing. It has been successful for a number of years, but when confronted by an opponent which employs a strategy that breaks up its gameplan, it has no response, no plan B. It only knows one mode of attack, and when that attack is blunted, and then turned around, it flounders, and loses the match in the most devastating fashion.
The President doesn't merely want to win re-election; he wants to bring devastation upon the GOP and the right. That started this week. Game on.