Last week, President Obama had unprecedented opportunities on consecutive days to demonstrate his promised “change we can believe in.” On both occasions, he came up short.
On Wednesday night, the President addressed the nation about his plans for withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan, outlining a drawdown of 10,000 American troops by year’s end and fully reversing his 33,000-troop surge by the end of next summer. This means that by late in 2012, there will “only” be about 68,000 troops remaining in Afghanistan. This hardly seems a drawdown.
After eighteen months in office, President Obama told us that in another eighteen months or so, our troop level in Afghanistan will be about twice what it was at his inauguration. That’s a total of three years! Only eight months less than all of America’s involvement in World War II. In every other arena, it seems change is occurring at breakneck speed, but somehow we cannot figure out how to end our involvement in this interminable conflict. How many more young lives must we sacrifice? How many more dollars, at a rate of $10 billion per month, must we spend? What additional evidence do we have that when we leave, things will not deteriorate into chaos? It has been almost two years since I have argued in these pages for a full withdrawal from Afghanistan. And now, we learn that in yet another 18 months, our troop levels will return to where we were then. I am no military expert, but I cannot see what has changed in two years to insure us that this proposed tepid withdrawal is worth the cost.
Then on Thursday, the day before the New York State legislature passed its historic bill approving marriage equality for same gender loving couples, President Obama addressed 600 gay and lesbian guests at a fund raiser in New York City. The President spoke cautiously about same gender marriage, saying, "I believe that gay couples deserve the same legal rights as everybody else in this country," but that the issue was best left for states to decide. He continues to refer to his own position on this issue as “evolving.” There was an opportunity here to put a stake in the ground, to assure those in his audience, and to inspire the wider LGBT community and all Americans that the President affirms full civil rights for everyone. But, he did not grasp the moment and has been outflanked on this issue by the likes of Dick Cheney and the often feckless New York State legislature.
Two opportunities to endorse “change we can believe in.” Two missed opportunities, leaving many of us perplexed and disappointed. This President, whose very election made history, often seems unable to seize the moments of history that unfold around him and to act decisively. What Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the “fierce urgency of now” seems to elude his understanding. It is time for the President to heed the currents of history both regarding the war in Afghanistan and full equality for gay and lesbian people here in the US and lead us by unequivocally “getting out” of the former and “coming out” on the latter.