Washington’s Version of the Awards Ceremony

Washington’s Version of the Awards Ceremony

It’s like the Academy Awards without awards or celebrities or high style. It’s like the Grammys without music or celebrities or outré style. It’s like Sundance without screenings or deals or celebrities or coolness. The State of the Union is Washington’s version of the president’s awards ceremony. It’s an endless acceptance speech. And on foreign and defense policy, it’s especially boring five years into a presidency defined by defining down expectations of America in the world.

The White House was madly advancing that the president would be upbeat and not confrontational; it came off sounding weary and as though he were talking about somebody else’s government. The president actually congratulated himself for the lowest unemployment in five years, as though all five weren’t his to account for. He emphasized the need to close Guantanamo and reduce reliance on drone warfare and rein in surveillance, as though he hadn’t been in charge of them these last five years.

On international issues, the speech was embarrassingly solipsistic. The president talked about beating other countries out for high-tech manufacturing, going all-in on innovation to "own the global economy tomorrow." He gloated about America outpacing investment in China (the veracity of which is subject to some dispute). I wish the president could comfortably wear pride in our country without sounding like Alec Baldwin in the Major League Baseball commercial bragging about the Yankees — "lawn mowers don’t have a rivalry with grass."

On one national security issue the president was very direct: The way we have fought the wars and Iraq and Afghanistan was playing into the terrorists’ hands, calling them "large-scale deployments that drain our strength and may ultimately feed extremism." Again, he was the commander in chief for the last five years in which we fought the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with large-scale deployments. It is an extraordinary statement that he believes the way his own administration has conducted those wars drained our strength and fostered the very enemy we are fighting.

In addition to the implications for the wars, the president’s adamance that large-scale deployments not only drain our strength but help the enemy has enormous significance for the debate about what types and numbers of military forces we need. If I were the Army, I’d be rethinking the force structure plans, because with the president’s State of the Union address, the bottom just fell out of their justification for 490,000 active-duty soldiers.

Again tonight the president shined a bright light on a wounded soldier. I wish the president could talk about the soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen without making them all sound like disabled veterans. The men and women fighting our wars deserve more than our pity, more even than our respect: They deserve our understanding and our familiarity. But the way this administration talks about veterans actually increases the distance between Americans and our military, makes them seem different from the rest of us instead of part of us, and that’s actually a disservice to them.

At least the president didn’t petulantly announce the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan after 2014 — but he did say that the war would be over by the end of the year, though we might leave "a small force of Americans" to train Afghans and conduct counterterrorism missions. Hardly a ringing endorsement of his own policy, and unclear how it would demonstrate to our enemies the resolve he claims to have.