On reflection there was a central theme in President Obama’s 2015 State of the Union message. He was declaring victory. He declared victory in Afghanistan:
Tonight, for the first time since 9/11, our combat mission in Afghanistan is over. Six years ago, nearly 180,000 American troops served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, fewer than 15,000 remain. And we salute the courage and sacrifice of every man and woman in this 9/11 Generation who has served to keep us safe. We are humbled and grateful for your service.
This is a very narrow definition of victory and it’s one that could have been achieved seven years ago with little difference in effect other than the lives of those who’ve been killed in the interim. Even as we are drawing forces down in Afghanistan we are returning them to Iraq, without strategic objectives that can be effected by the tactics being used.
Similarly, on the domestic economy:
At this moment — with a growing economy, shrinking deficits, bustling industry, and booming energy production — we have risen from recession freer to write our own future than any other nation on Earth. It’s now up to us to choose who we want to be over the next fifteen years, and for decades to come.
Unfortunately, according to the National Association of Counties, only 65 of the 3,069 counties have recovered completely since the recession, most of those in Texas and North Dakota based on fossil fuel energy production. In other words, recovery has come to those counties despite the policies of the Obama Administration rather than because of them. We’re accustomed to the rooster taking credit for the sun’s rising.
This theme wasn’t lost on the editors of the Washington Post:
The emphasis on domestic issues was striking, given international developments in the past year. A year ago, Mr. Obama spoke of taking the country off its “war footing”; since then, he has sent thousands of troops to Iraq and launched airstrikes against the Islamic State.
This time Mr. Obama asked Congress for formal authority to continue the war, which he said would “take time” and “require focus.” But his ambivalence about the effort was evident in the relatively short shrift he gave to the fight against Islamic extremism. He underlined the end of the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan, though the war rages on and the Afghan government is losing ground to the Taliban.
We’ve seen this movie before and we know how it ends. The Afghan government is completely dependent on foreign aid, mostly U. S. foreign aid. It cannot maintain its military, willing to fight or not, without it. That aid will be cut off sooner rather than later as we have done in the past without de facto permanent commitment of troops.
This post is not intended as an indictment of the Obama Administration rather my intention is that it be hortatory. There are three possibilities for these declarations of victory: the president is right, the president is wrong, or declaration of victory is premature. Put me down for the last.
We can do better. He can do better. Make economic growth a primary objective. Look to the infrastructure of the future, energy and connectivity, rather than that of the past—roads and bridges. Build the pipelines. They will bring some short term job and economic growth. Emphasize data infrastructure (including security) rather than bridges to nowhere and roads that should never have been built.
Stop thinking of the economy as zero sum, a situation which the only way that anyone wins is by making someone lose. More soft power, convincing people to want what you want, rather than hard power.
For more analysis of the State of the Union message see the roundup at memeorandum.