With his eye set on the next election, President Obama attempted to remind the country and the Congress that sacrifice for the common good is a pressing need. As preacher-in-chief, he tried to summon the best within our national character to meet the great tasks before us. He embraced many liberal goals: more teachers, more roads, and more innovative technology. However, despite the impressive rhetoric, in tackling the domestic and international agendas, Obama, two years into his term, has come up wanting. He seems to be always negotiating half-heartedly, indifferently, and fearfully. In short, when Obama comes to the bargaining table, he is so focused on facilitating compromise and restoring civility that he prematurely abandons the very principles he espouses. However, political life requires making the good fight with tenacious commitment to principle and pursuit of hard bargaining. Compromise comes only after political struggle.
In ousting General Stanley McChrystal, Obama conjured up images of President Harry Truman firing General Douglas MacArthur. This comparison is misleading because the Truman-MacArthur conflict was over substance. Though Obama was justified in firing McChrystal for showing poor judgment in bad-mouthing his civilian partners in the military led counterinsurgency strategy, McChrystal must have been frustrated by the contradictions in policy at the heart of what is now Obama’s war: limiting collateral damage while winning hearts and minds, building government institutions with a corrupt partner while defeating an insurgency; adding more troops but never enough; and building up in order to leave. The elephant in the General’s command post was not the Rolling Stone reporter but a stark reality: Afghanistan is the wrong war, in the wrong place at the worst possible time.