George W. Bush never wavered. He remained resolute, his conscience clear. He knew he was doing God's work. He was--and no doubt remains today--a true believer. The 43d president was a well-intentioned fool, who inflicted grievous harm on his country. Yet when Bush stands before his Maker (or the bar of History), he will say without fear of contradiction: "I did what I thought was right."
Barack Obama is anything but a fool. Yet when called upon to account for his presidency, honesty will prevent him from making a comparable claim. "The problems I inherited were difficult ones," he will say. "None of the choices were good ones. Things were complicated."
The Afghanistan war forms part of that complicated inheritance where good choices are hard to come by. Much as Iraq was Bush's war, Afghanistan has become Obama's war. Yet the president clearly wants nothing more than to rid himself of his war. Obama has prolonged and escalated a conflict in which he himself manifestly does not believe. When after months of deliberation (or delay) he unveiled his Afghan "surge" in December 2009, the presidential trumpet blew charge and recall simultaneously. Even as Obama ordered more troops into combat, he announced their planned withdrawal "because the nation that I'm most interested in building is our own."
The Americans who elected Obama president share that view. Yet the expectations of change that vaulted him to the presidency went well beyond the issue of priorities. Obama's supporters were counting on him to bring to the White House an enlightened moral sensibility: He would govern differently not only because he was smarter than his predecessor but because he responded to a different--and truer--inner compass.
Events have demolished such expectations. Today, when they look at Washington, Americans see a cool, dispassionate, calculating president whose administration lacks a moral core. For prosecution exhibit number one, we need look no further than the meandering course of Obama's war, its casualties and costs mounting without discernible purpose.
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