Update: I want to note that yes, Obama never uses the exact phrase "war on terror" in the speech. However, the framing seems so close that it is a very fine distinction. I guess that is an improvement from the days when Democrats happily went along with the phrase themselves, but I still don't think that this is much of a break with the framing, or a particularly progressive foreign policy--Chris
People gathered in the streets and looked up at the sky and the Sears Tower, transformed from a workplace to a target. We feared for our families and our country. We mourned the terrible loss suffered by our fellow citizens. Back at my law office, I watched the images from New York: a plane vanishing into glass and steel; men and women clinging to windowsills, then letting go; tall towers crumbling to dust. It seemed all of the misery and all of the evil in the world were in that rolling black cloud, blocking out the September sun.
What we saw that morning forced us to recognize that in a new world of threats, we are no longer protected by our own power. And what we saw that morning was a challenge to a new generation.
The history of America is one of tragedy turned into triumph. And so a war over secession became an opportunity to set the captives free. An attack on Pearl Harbor led to a wave of freedom rolling across the Atlantic and Pacific. An Iron Curtain was punctured by democratic values, new institutions at home, and strong international partnerships abroad.
After 9/11, our calling was to write a new chapter in the American story. To devise new strategies and build new alliances, to secure our homeland and safeguard our values, and to serve a just cause abroad. We were ready. Americans were united. Friends around the world stood shoulder to shoulder with us. We had the might and moral-suasion that was the legacy of generations of Americans. The tide of history seemed poised to turn, once again, toward hope.
Invoking the image of the collapsing towers to argue that 9/11 changed everything. Declaring that the struggle against terrorism is the great fight of our times, equal to past generational struggles such as ending slavery, defeating fascism, and winning the cold war. And yes, this is coming from Barack Obama. This is a speech where he contextualizes his policy on fighting terrorism in virtually exactly the same manner that Republicans have for some time. Granted, as the speech goes on, he decries the policies and tactics the Bush administration has used to fight terrorism, even as he reaffirms the premise that the "War on terror" is the central struggle facing our nation (emphasis mine):
We did not finish the job against al Qaeda in Afghanistan. We did not develop new capabilities to defeat a new enemy, or launch a comprehensive strategy to dry up the terrorists' base of support. We did not reaffirm our basic values, or secure our homeland.
Instead, we got a color-coded politics of fear. Patriotism as the possession of one political party. The diplomacy of refusing to talk to other countries. A rigid 20th century ideology that insisted that the 21st century's stateless terrorism could be defeated through the invasion and occupation of a state. A deliberate strategy to misrepresent 9/11 to sell a war against a country that had nothing to do with 9/11.(..)
The President was determined to go to war. There was just one obstacle: the U.S. Congress. Nine days after I spoke, that obstacle was removed. Congress rubber-stamped the rush to war, giving the President the broad and open-ended authority he uses to this day. With that vote, Congress became co-author of a catastrophic war. And we went off to fight on the wrong battlefield, with no appreciation of how many enemies we would create, and no plan for how to get out.
Because of a war in Iraq that should never have been authorized and should never have been waged, we are now less safe than we were before 9/11.(…)
Just because the President misrepresents our enemies does not mean we do not have them. The terrorists are at war with us.
It isn't so much that Bush, conservatives and Republicans are wrong about the war on terror being the great challenge of our generation, it is just that they are implementing the wrong policies to wage that war. It terms of those policies ineffectively combating terrorist organizations and making America less safe, you will get no argument from me. However, Obama is going beyond simply reaffirming that combating terrorism should be the main focus of our foreign policy. In this speech, he is moving to position himself as a "tough" and "serious" hawk on terrorism, by specifically emphasizing the most aggressive aspects of his foreign policy. Apparently, these include increasing the number of American troops in Afghanistan, and conducting military strikes against terrorist groups within the borders of other countries (emphasis mine).
When I am President, we will wage the war that has to be won, with a comprehensive strategy with five elements: getting out of Iraq and on to the right battlefield in Afghanistan and Pakistan; developing the capabilities and partnerships we need to take out the terrorists and the world's most deadly weapons; engaging the world to dry up support for terror and extremism; restoring our values; and securing a more resilient homeland.(…)
As President, I would deploy at least two additional brigades to Afghanistan to re-enforce our counter-terrorism operations and support NATO's efforts against the Taliban. As we step up our commitment, our European friends must do the same, and without the burdensome restrictions that have hampered NATO's efforts. We must also put more of an Afghan face on security by improving the training and equipping of the Afghan Army and Police, and including Afghan soldiers in U.S. and NATO operations.(…)
I understand that President Musharraf has his own challenges. But let me make this clear. There are terrorists holed up in those mountains who murdered 3,000 Americans. They are plotting to strike again. It was a terrible mistake to fail to act when we had a chance to take out an al Qaeda leadership meeting in 2005. If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will.
No candidate known for opposing the Iraq war from the beginning gives a speech like this unless s/he is trying to change his image on military matters and foreign policy. No Democrat running for President tells the country that he will deploy more troops to Afghanistan and conduct military strikes in Pakistan without Pakistan's approval in order to appeal to the primary electorate. I think what Obama is trying to do instead, and what the media coverage of this speech so far is helping him accomplish, is bust up an image of him as "soft" or "inexperienced" on military matters. As we have all learned from the example of Bush and Republicans over the years, the media and foreign policy establishment doesn't care if you are "inexperienced" on foreign policy as long as you threaten to bomb people, in which case you look "tough" and "serious." Obama is trying to win the approval of that establishment, and change the way he is portrayed by it.
Now, some people will defend what Obama is doing here in terms of policy. Others will argue that Obama has to portray himself this way in order to avoid looking left-wing, or something. However, keep in mind that no Democrat, no matter how hawkish s/he appears, has ever received the right-wing stamp of approval and thus avoided some variation of the "soft on defense" narrative. Further, keep in mind that in 2004, voters who cited "terrorism" as their prime concern voted for Bush at an 86%-14% clip. Republican win when the terrorism frame is foregrounded, and Democrats are not able to vaccinate themselves against attacks by appearing hawkish themselves. Terrorism voters are not, ultimately, policy-based voters. They are, instead, conservative, identity based, "values voters" in a different energy state.
I don't think this speech will help Obama much, but I guess we will have to see. I certainly do not think it will help Democrats and progressives much to reinforce the "War on terror" as the central focus of our foreign policy. Certainly, Democrats will go on winning elections for some time, simply because America now knows what it is like to live under unchecked, truly conservative governance. However, if we do not start attacking the framing, ideas, and infrastructure they used to gain power and push their policies in the first place, our looming realignment will not have any ideological component to it. It will, instead, simply be a shift in partisan control, where the basic framework for right-wing re-emergence remains in waiting over the next four, six, or ten years. We cannot just defeat Republicans in elections-we must defeat the roots of their power, including the ideas, frames, and infrastructure the conservative movement used to create the 2002-2006 conservative Republican trifecta in D.C. As long as we re-affirm some of the central frames from the conservative movement, like the war on terror, we simply are not doing that.