Necessity or Choice?
Addressing the Veterans of Foreign Wars on Monday:
PHOENIX — President Obama on Monday defended his decision to increase American involvement in Afghanistan, calling it a “a war of necessity” and warning an audience of military veterans that Al Qaeda was still plotting to attack the United States and would not easily be defeated.
With the Pentagon assessing strategy and troop deployments in Afghanistan, Mr. Obama made no specific policy announcements. But he did address the criticism that he would get bogged down in Afghanistan, allowing that war to turn into a second Vietnam.
“We must never forget,” he said. “This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity. Those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again. If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which Al Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans.
“So this is not only a war worth fighting. This is fundamental to the defense of our people.”
The speech, to an audience of 5,500 members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and their families, was in pointed contrast to Mr. Obama’s frequent criticism of the war in Iraq as “a war of choice.” The president on Monday repeated his pledge to withdraw all troops from Iraq by the end of 2011, saying, “And for America, the Iraq war will end.”
As a commander in chief who has never served in the armed forces, Mr. Obama is still working to establish his bona fides with the military. His predecessor, George W. Bush, typically received wildly enthusiastic receptions from military audiences; Mr. Obama’s speech was interrupted only occasionally by polite applause.
1. The president reiterated the “war of necessity, war of choice” distinction which, as I have argued before, just does not stand up to rigorous scrutiny. It is short-hand for “wars I support, wars I do not support.” Serious security studies specialists argued against the Afghanistan war from the outset and even more argue that we should walk away from Afghanistan now. I do not endorse their views, but I say that they are an existence proof that the necessity vs. choice distinction is more rhetorical than real. It may even be misleading, since we have lots of choices ahead in Afghanistan and it is entirely possible for us -- either the president or the public or both -- to get those choices wrong.
2. Calling the fight in Afghanistan necessary was as far as he went in terms of rallying the American people to the war. I would have liked to hear a bit more rallying than that. I suspect the speechwriters were also very deliberate in using the word “success” rather than “win” or “victory” in terms of Afghanistan. Doubtless, they have heard that our NATO allies believe that there is a meaningful distinction -- “success” being much less demanding than “victory.” Personally, I find the “success” vs. “victory” argument strained, and I have yet to see much systematic polling evidence that shows the public draws that nuanced a distinction. For what it is worth, in the academic work I did with my Duke colleagues Chris Gelpi and Jason Reifler, we treated “success” and “victory” as largely synonymous.