January 21, 2013

I think one of the least appreciated aspects of President Obama’s first term has been that the United States is still at war. In fact, I’d say it stretches back to George W. Bush’s second term; from the peak of the surge in Iraq, and perhaps even before that, political pundits stopped treating war as something extraordinary. It’s been treated, far too often, as just part of the general background noise of modern life.

President Barack Obama delivers the inaugural address. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
President Barack Obama delivers the inaugural address. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

But of course it isn’t; for those fighting it, and their families, the fact of war has been an overwhelming reality. And while it’s not a day-to-day thing for most Americans, I suspect it’s still a bigger deal to us than we’ve treated it as. And ending the wars, first in Iraq in Obama’s first term and then Afghanistan in his second term, are bigger deals than most pundits realize.

That said — we’re a long way from knowing what ending these wars really means. Obama hinted at it a bit in his speech today, emphasizing internationalist faith in treaties, alliances, and institutions:

[W]e are also heirs to those who won the peace and not just the war; who turned sworn enemies into the surest of friends — and we must carry those lessons into this time as well. We will defend our people and uphold our values through strength of arms and rule of law. We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully — not because we are naïve about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear. America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe. And we will renew those institutions that extend our capacity to manage crisis abroad, for no one has a greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation.

But that still leaves a lot of questions. If the United States is no longer at war in Afghanistan or Iraq, will it still be at war with al Qaeda? With other, specific, groups? With Islamists in general? What will that war look like? Can a nation be at peace if it is still using drone attacks, even if its troops are no longer deployed into combat? If it is still vulnerable to attacks such as the raid in Algeria?

These are not meant to be rhetorical questions with obvious answer; they’re real issues that Obama will start to answer over the next four years. One of the breakdowns in the 2008 campaign was that Mitt Romney, and the Republicans in general, proved utterly uninterested and incapable in discussing foreign policy, which pretty much left Obama to brag about killing Osama bin Laden without being pressed to discuss what came next, let alone what his proposals were for the rest of the world. So, as Dan Drezner said, the foreign policy portion of today’s speech read as “boilerplate … as if it was a placeholder for better text.”

But not, I don’t think, his clear assertion that “a decade of war is now ending.” That, I think, was a clear, solid frame for what he wants everyone to think about his foreign policy. And I think that such a frame really does point to, and push to, specific policy choices down the road. We’re a long way from knowing exactly how Obama wants to get there, let alone whether he’ll succeed, but it sure sounds as if “ending the wars” is the way he’s thinking about it for now.