Addressing the annual American Legion convention in Charlotte last week, President Obama sugar-coated his defense of selective use of military force by reciting what's been done to cope with the Department of Veterans Affairs' failures to deliver promised benefits to returning troops.
To only mild applause, the president cited efforts to deal with the backup of claims at various VA facilities around the county, a beefing up of mental illness care, access to more non-VA doctors, greater efforts to reduce veterans' homelessness and easing transition to civilian life.
In a way, he sugar-coated that pitch as well, contending that "thanks to the decisions we made to rescue our economy... we are stronger at home" and that America's improved standing the world has benefited all veterans. It was a perception not necessarily appreciated by many in the Legion-capped audience.
The harder sell to them may have been his justification for the removal of all 140,000 American combat forces from Iraq, in light of the emergence in northern Iraq of the jihadist group the Islamic State, and its brutal beheading of an American journalist. Of that, he reassured the Legion: "America does not forget. Our reach is long. We are patient. Justice will be done. We have proved time and time again we will do what's necessary to capture those who harm Americans."
But, again, as he did at West Point in May, Mr. Obama said "we have to use our power wisely," pointedly referring to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. "History teaches us of the dangers of overreaching, and spreading ourselves too thin, and trying to go it alone without international support, or rushing into military adventures without thinking through the consequences."
He continued: "And nobody knows this better than our veterans... and our veteran families, because you're the ones who bear the wages of war. You're the ones who carry the scars. You know that we should never send America's sons and daughters into harm's way unless it is absolutely necessary and we have a plan, and we are resourcing it and prepared to see it through.
"And that's why, after incalculable sacrifice by so many of our men and women in uniform, we removed more than 140,000 troops from Iraq and welcomed those troops home. It was the right thing to do. It's why we refocused our efforts in Afghanistan and went after al-Qaida's leadership in the tribal regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, taking the Taliban out of its stronghold and training Afghan forces, which are now in the lead for their own security."
Mr. Obama optimistically observed that "in just four months, we will complete our combat mission in Afghanistan and America's longest war will come to a responsible end." Reaching that conclusion, however, will be much disputed then and in the future.
More immediately, the president's challenge is to convince not only American veterans but all those concerned about the renewed terrorism in the region that despite his renewed pledge that there will be "no U.S. troops on the ground" in Iraq, he will do what is necessary to deal decisively with it.
Already a bit of a semantic game is being played by the Obama administration over the meaning of "combat troops." Whatever label is given, a dead soldier is a dead soldier, whether engaged in direct fire or one lost while serving in a support or spotter role. And the grief and anguish will be the same to the victim and family members.
In Mr. Obama's own continuing anguish — the consequence of his predecessor's rush to an unnecessary war in Iraq waged on false intelligence and premises — he cannot let his hands be tied in responding with all military force required to eradicate potential threats.
In purely political terms, as critics argue that he is too cautious and that American foreign policy is being addressed by an inexperienced and reluctant warrior, the whole situation bodes ill for this second-term president also facing midterm congressional losses, and running out of time.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is email@example.com.
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