It may not have resonated with the force of Dwight Eisenhower's farewell speech to the nation 53 years ago in which the departing president warned of the growing power of the “military-industrial complex,” but President Obama's declaration last Tuesday night that “America must move off a permanent war footing” was in keeping with that landmark statement. The “complex” is still influential and powerful, draining taxpayer funds that would be better spent elsewhere, and in the year ahead the president and Congress have an opportunity to lessen its grip.
President Obama's remark came in the context of several foreign policy issues, from drones to Guantanamo to surveillance programs that leak over into domestic spying, but it is perhaps most closely linked to Afghanistan, where the president is winding down America's longest war, and Iran, where he is trying to avoid repeating past policy failures. The most powerful unifying moment came late in Tuesday night's address when the president acknowledged the presence of Army Ranger Cory Remsburg, whom Mr. Obama first met during ceremonies marking the 65th anniversary of D-Day. Months later, the ranger was nearly killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan and is struggling to overcome severe brain injuries.
It was clear from the sustained applause by Democrats and Republicans that Washington realizes the debt it owes to its fighting men and women, in particular those who have returned from foreign wars badly wounded. But that debt carries with it the responsibility to send soldiers to war only out of absolute necessity, and meeting the demands of Pentagon bureaucrats, think-tank theorists, relentless congressional war hawks and defense contractors does not meet that criterion.
The war in Afghanistan will wind down in 2014, years after the post-9/11 rationale for it had disappeared. That nation's fickle and untrustworthy leader, Hamad Karzai, has so far broken his promise to sign a security agreement that would keep a limited number of American and NATO troops in the country after this year, and if he wants to go it alone he should be allowed to. The path to be taken by Afghanistan, which has been a poor ally to say the least, is not up to the United States.
America will not be fighting any wars once our troops have left in Afghanistan, which will merit celebration. It doesn't mean, however, that the U.S. should embrace isolationism and abandon its important role in the world. The philosophy going forward must be, as President Obama said in reference to the removal of Syria's chemical weapons, “American diplomacy, backed by the threat of force.”
That philosophy is at the core of the ongoing negotiations to halt Iran's nuclear weapons program. Armchair warriors in Congress, having learned nothing from the disastrous Iraq War and spoiling for another fight, oppose negotiations and are pushing for the restoration of economic sanctions on Iran, knowing that this will ruin the talks. The president promised Tuesday night to veto such legislation.
Mr. Obama's strategy puts the onus on Iran, and if it fails to eliminate its weapons program or sabotages the talks, the U.S. will be justified in restoring sanctions. But, as the president said, let's give “diplomacy a chance to succeed.” Beyond that, let's give peace a chance by getting off the permanent war footing that drains taxpayer revenue from domestic programs and invites misguided foreign adventures. Ike was right in 1961, and his advice remains sound in 2014.