Thomas Cushman: Victory over Totalitarianism

President Obama’s speech might have been far more effective—and honest—if he had admitted the most elemental truth about the war in Iraq: that the surge of troops ordered by George W. Bush actually worked to defeat the terrorist insurgency that threatened to derail the whole experiment in liberty and freedom in Iraq.


Obama opposed this troop surge and was, indeed, on the vanguard of the defeatist antiwar left. Had his view prevailed, Iraq would have been reconquered by al-Qaeda and Baathist extremists whose victory over a weak United States would have been the most potent recruiting tool imaginable for America’s enemies for generations to come.

Obama made the political move of declaring the war to be over, but it is not. Fifty thousand American troops remain, and they are combat-ready, and American military presence will always be necessary in Iraq in order to maintain the fragile equilibrium there. The president’s proclivity to announce American withdrawal strategies publicly, not only in Iraq but also in Afghanistan, will only embolden those who wish to derail the most exciting experiment in democracy in the Arab world.

Obama said in a pre-speech press release that he was not going to offer a “victory lap.” Well, why not? That is what US armed forces are entitled to because of their blood, sweat, and tears on behalf of Iraq. Because of their efforts, the insurgency was dealt mortal blows, and now the Iraqi people have an opportunity to make a free and decent democracy in an area that has been characterized by the bloodiest sort of despotism. It was warming that Obama expressed such heartfelt admiration and awe for the troops, but he needed to provide a more affirmative vision of successes in Iraq—a vision that casts it as a victory over totalitarianism, which has always been a central aspect of America’s civilizing mission. It is precisely the renunciation of that mission and Obama’s willingness to appease the new wave of authoritarian leaders around the world that signify the evisceration of a Democratic Party once proud to stand for democratization and human rights in foreign policy.

The speech was disappointing as well in its craven attempt to link the economic crisis of the middle class to the expenditures on the war. Politicizing the war by trying to get the middle class to see its present quandaries as a result of it will not fool the average American, who understands that Obama’s failed economic policies and his drive to increase taxation and social entitlements are, at base, what is making their existence miserable. Obama has been president for nearly two years, and he continues to lay the blame for the economic crisis on his predecessor. He still has not learned the lesson that Americans were only willing to go along with that game for a short time. They elected a president to lead them, not to be a recriminator-in-chief.

It is highly doubtful Obama’s speech will convince the middle classes that the war is the principal reason for their crisis. Such rhetoric appeals to the anti-war left and fulfills a central campaign promise, but that constituency is now a small part of Obama’s political retinue. The November elections will decidedly show that the voters are no longer interested in voting on referenda on the Bush administration and that they expect the president to lead.

Thomas Cushman is professor of sociology at Wellesley College and coeditor of “The Religious in Responses to Mass Atrocity” (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

  • Justonevoice

    The surge worked because one of the major warlords in Iraq decided to work with us rather than against us. His decision had nothing to do with the surge. This guy’s whole premise is wrong and ideologically driven.

  • aripapandreou

    The presidents stimulus has saved millions of jobs.You claim that all economic policies under the Obama presidency have failed,I’m surprised to hear that from an academic like yourself.I understand that your ideology is different than mine and the presidents please stop sounding like a fox news pundit.Truely I admire your academic excellence and respect your view on politics and all social issues.Thank you

  • Virginia Fink

    Craven seems a better description of the author if this trite piece and I do not think it belongs in this forum

  • Stephen67

    The surge was part of two other factors without which the whole thing would have failed. One was the population’s desire to step back from the brink of total civil war, especially after the bombing of the Samarra Mosque. It was an act that made most Sunnis blance and decreased their suppor for Al Qaeda. Many Baathists, who are secular Iraqi nationalists, also began to believe that Al Qaeda was a greater threat to their vision of Iraq than the Americans. The second was the Democrats winning the November 2006 elections. Baathists, tribal leaders, and others have said that until then they believed the American people wanted a long-term takeover of Iraq. After that they began to believe the Americans wanted to get out. Both of these things together led to many Sunni tribes and Baathists to stop fighting the US forces and instead turn against Al Qaeda. This happened before the surge, so to say the surge caused it makes no sense. However, the surge helped in its success. Finally, remember that the argument for the surge was that it would create an opening to resolve all the political problems; opponents said it wouldn’t, and since it’s six months since the election and there’s still no government, it appears they were right.

  • Tibor R. Machan

    Justonevoice says that Cushman’s points are “ideologically driven.” What on earth does this mean? Does it mean that Cushman has a general framework from which he approaches the topic? Who does not–I am certain that whatever are Justonevoice’s point on the topic they, too, are “driven” by Justonevoice’s ideology or general framework. The reference to ideology in that remark is transparently gratuitous. (The term “ideology” had a major role in Marxism, suggesting that what someone believes and says is a function of a special class-based agenda. Is this what Justonevoice has in mind? But then he needs to show it, not merely assert it.)