At times Tuesday night, it sounded as if President Barack Obama didn't know what kind of speech he wanted to give. Was it a foreign policy address aimed at assuring a world-wide audience of America's resolve in the war against militant Islam? Or was it an election stump speech to confirm to voters that the economy is job No. 1 for this president and his party?
The speech's best moments were those praising the commitment, courage and sacrifice of America's military. The president powerfully said that "our troops are the steel in our ship of state," and all who serve join "an unbroken line of heroes that stretches from Lexington to Gettysburg; from Iwo Jima to Inchon; from Khe Sanh to Kandahar."
For someone who had been such a vocal war opponent, he was generous in acknowledging what our troops accomplished—defeating "a regime that had terrorized its people" and helping "Iraq seize the chance for a better future." Because of our troops, he said, "Iraq has the opportunity to embrace a new destiny, even though many challenges remain."
As a foreign policy address, however, the speech missed the mark. While Mr. Obama did acknowledge that the U.S. "intends to sustain and strengthen our leadership" in the world, most foreign observers will probably remember the president's tone of haste, withdrawal and even retreat. His phrase, "It is time to turn the page," caught many an ear around the world—and not to America's advantage.
Mr. Obama's was not the confident voice of Harry S. Truman promising to protect Europe and Japan against "outright aggression and . . . the threat of further armed attack." Nor did the president sound like the determined Dwight Eisenhower explaining America's commitment to South Korea's transition to democracy after the Korean War by saying, "We may not now relax our guard nor cease our quest."
Instead, Mr. Obama's address was more reminiscent of Sen. George McGovern's plea in the 1972 presidential campaign to "Come home, America." It sounded like he couldn't head for the Iraq exit door quickly enough.
Imagine if after World War II, America had left Europe in the face of the aggressive Soviet threat. What would Asia look like now if, following the Korean War, the U.S. had set a quick date for withdrawal from the peninsula?
As much as he may wish, Mr. Obama cannot ignore Iraq or withdraw prematurely from Afghanistan. He has ownership of both wars; it's part of his job description. He will share in the wars' success or be blamed if they are lost. And he will have a better chance of succeeding if our friends and enemies sense resolve, rather than weariness.
The world needs a determined United States. It is in the security, diplomatic and economic interests of our nation to provide to Iraq and Afghanistan the same patient leadership we provided in Europe and Asia. We face new threats from Iran. China and Russia are both flexing their muscles. Telegraphing to the world that America is no longer a dependable ally is the worst possible message a president can send.
Tuesday might have been better spent visiting not just Fort Bliss but other military installations as well to honor all the services. Then Mr. Obama could have given an Oval Office address when the new Iraqi government is formed, pairing progress on security with political success.
Mr. Obama suggested that a trillion dollars had been squandered to no good purpose in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade. Are removing murderous regimes that were threats to peace and stability, catalyzing change in the Arab Middle East by expanding democracy, dealing a brutal blow to al Qaeda, protecting the American homeland, and diminishing the threat of transnational terrorism really of so little value to the president?
Speaking of trillions, have we prospered because of the trillion dollars Mr. Obama is spending on stimulus? Are we more confident of our country's future because Mr. Obama will lay out two-and-a-half trillion dollars in ObamaCare's first decade of operation? Do back-to-back-to-back deficits under this president—each of more than a trillion dollars—give us comfort about his fiscal leadership?
All issues pale compared to the question of U.S. leadership. America can either shape the world's agenda, or wait for direction from international organizations.
Suggesting that only by withdrawing from the world can a president "jump-start industries," reform education, and make "tough decisions" about issues at home leaves the impression that Mr. Obama has little interest in being commander in chief, that his real passion is domestic issues and his goal to mold America into a European-style social democracy.
Presidents can simultaneously pursue international and domestic agendas. In dangerous times, it is vital that the president use America's power to shape the world.
This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, September 1, 2010.