President Obama's speech last night will not be quoted anywhere. It was neither memorable nor newsworthy, it made no grand point, and it was constructed in such a way as to be dismissed by both the right and the left. In fact, it's a reminder that the statements Obama has made in his first term have thus far been, on the whole, completely forgettable to the average American. For a man so lauded for his speaking ability and the craft of his writers, the memorable lines are few and far between: his oft-repeated stump-speech on health care probably contains the lines most Americans know, since they included a raft of promises. Looking back, it is his speech in Cairo and his speech upon receiving the Nobel Prize which most commenters would probably consider the critical remarks from this term.
Yet in taking the opportunity to share a few thoughts with us on Iraq - to "turn the page" as he said - the president left us wanting. For the right, he highlighted his insistent wrongness on the tactical response to the Iraq War during his brief tenure in the Senate; for the left, he highlighted what they believe to be his insistent wrongness in applying a similar tactical response to the war in Afghanistan. So both sides complain, no one cherishes, and a key foreign policy moment is passed by - the big news story from the White House today was all about the president speaking from an Oval Office with a fresh coat of beige, not the remarks. It is, in my view, a missed opportunity.
The way the White House presented the speech was schizophrenic to begin with - another communications failure in a long stream of misread optics and poorly chosen words. Robert Gibbs provides an example of how to fail to properly represent the Commander in Chief - clearly the weakest member of Obama's internal team, and one I fully expect to be gone in the aftermath of the midterm elections, Gibbs flailed mightily today, misquoting his boss's views from 2007 and ignoring questions about Obama's shift in opinion on strategy. He urged reporters to check out the facts about what Obama had said in the past, perhaps without checking them himself (Obama in January 2007: "I don't know any expert [who believes surge] is going to make a substantial difference." Obama in June 2007: "Here's what we know: the surge has not worked.") -- or if he did check, it was blatant incompetence to make such a claim of consistency.
Politicians never like to say they're wrong about anything, and never like to admit they've changed their views. But when that mistake is so apparent and evident, it's silly to be stubborn about it. Obama's perspective on foreign policy has clearly shifted over the past two years, and he should readily admit that fact. Because he refuses to, it creates scenarios like this, a year and a half ago:
Q: If you had to do it over again, knowing what you know now, would you support the surge?
Obama: No. Because, keep in mind that —
Q: You wouldn’t?
Obama: Keep in mind, these kind of hypotheticals are very difficult. You know hindsight is 20/20. But I think that what I am absolutely convinced of is at that time we had to change the political debate because the view of the Bush administration at that time was one I just disagreed with.
President Obama's approach to foreign policy has been better than many on the right expected, and has improved in several areas since he made those remarks. Great leaders recognize their own errors as they come, and respond to them by learning and adapting, not fighting the battles of the past. Obama had been a senator for barely 12 months when he spoke out so forcefully against the surge - in his role now, and going forward, Americans need to be confident he has learned from the experiences of the recent past, and takes that knowledge with him as he faces challenging decisions. They need to know he approaches policy with a clear vision about what he wants to achieve -- that he is not just, as Greg put it, hedging his bets.
It is one thing to be wrong about a strategic policy when you are just one senator out of a hundred. It is another when you are the one man who matters, and the lives of a great many American soldiers hang in the balance.
Benjamin Domenech, a former speechwriter for Tommy Thompson and Sen. John Cornyn, is editor of The New Ledger and a research fellow with The Heartland Institute. He writes on defense and security issues for The Compass.