Barack Obama's speech last week calling for an end to perpetual war was, bar done, the greatest given by an American president in my lifetime.
This is because the speech articulated fundamental truths about the times in which we live long overdue in the telling, chief among them that our democracy demands that while we must continue to fight terrorism, the perpetual war the 9/11 attacks unleashed must end. And this: History shows that while terrorism continues to be ever present in many guises, it is by no means the greatest threat that America has faced, let alone one that justified abrogation of the liberties and principles that are the bedrock of our society.
Republicans predictably took to the fainting couch en masse, because -- let's face it folks -- you either like war or you don't like it, and the ideologues who have bent the Grand Old Party out of any recognizable shape believe there is no higher calling than shedding American blood on foreign soil no matter how flimsy the reasons for doing so may be. This mindset, in turn, prompted a litany of brickbats aimed at the commander in chief, the most inane of which surely was that he has "a pre-9/11 mindset."Among those with that mindset was James Madison, whom the president quoted as saying, "No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare." In other words, wars compromise our values and we eventually become what we hate. (Thank you, Messrs Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld.)
Obama defined the scope of the future struggle against terrorism and other global threats in a post-perpetual war America. This includes repealing the Authorization for Use of Military Force mandate, giving the military, intelligence agencies and law enforcement the right tools, focusing on more localized threats like Benghazi, and more judicious use of unmanned drones. Oh, and dear Congressfolk, it's long past time to close Guantánamo Bay, dammit.
Talk, of course, is cheap and Obama has broken promises in the past. Then there is the matter of those obdurate Republicans, whom he has no hope of engaging. This means that when it comes to actions like closing Gitmo and transferring the hardest of the remaining hardcore prisoners to escape-proof federal maximum-security prisons, he will have to pretty much go it alone.
In the end, what made the president's speech so great was that it was an appeal to a war-weary nation for a return to normality. That is to say an America that has a proportional approach to counter-terrorism, like the pre-9/11 responses to the Beirut embassy bombing, Pan American flight 103, and the attacks on American facilities and embassies in Saudi Arabia and East Africa. In which soft power trumps hard power in all but the most extreme circumstances.
I am 66 and a veteran. I also am a keen observer of history, and America’s perpetual warmaking has prompted me to reread Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest and Fitzgerald’s Fire in the Lake, two of the very best and most honest books about the Vietnam War. The lessons unlearned from that misadventure were much on my mind as Obama spoke. His perspective, wisdom and candor were deeply refreshing, and all the more so because of my own malaise.
It seems to me that Obama has had a catharsis and was not merely coddling his grumpy liberal base or trying to paper over scandals, as some critics would have it. Perhaps the Nobel Peace Prize winner was being mindful of his legacy. In any event, I can imagine a late night conversation with a trusted friend who told him, “Mr. President, it’s time to take it home on this war business."
We may never know, but someone or something got to him and America will be better for it.
Photograph by Saul Loeb/AFP-Getty Images