Obama’s perch on the fence might be the best place for America

By Jayson Jacoby December 11, 2009 12:05 pm

President Obama, as I understand the situation, is too cautious as a war leader to suit conservatives, yet too bellicose to gain the favor of liberals.

This puts the president pretty near where I’d like him to be.

Quite a lot of Obama’s critics have accused him, since his speech last week, of that most overused metaphor. He’s sitting on the fence, they say, unwilling or unable to commit to one course of action.

Well I don’t think there’s anything much wrong with fences, or with sitting on one when you want to get a look around from a slightly elevated vantage point.

I happen to believe the president is correct in concluding that America’s military has vital work yet to do in Afghanistan, and that some of those tasks, once completed, will help to protect Americans.

For instance, we ought to afford the Afghans a chance to reward themselves with those gifts we cannot give them no matter how many lives or dollars we sacrifice on their behalf: a stable government and a society that is sterile ground for the likes of the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Whether we need, for our own security, to fight those groups in Afghanistan today is a question worthy of debate.

That the latter group is eminently capable of killing us is not.

Unlike his detractors on the right, who decry Obama’s talk of timetables for withdrawing our troops, I appreciate that the president acknowledges, however tacitly, that our nation’s blood and money are precious resources whose supplies are not inexhaustible.

I understand the fear that Obama, by even mentioning dates, is emboldening our enemies by telling them how long they must hold out.

But it seems to me that that concern is more than offset by the converse benefit of convincing our allies — most especially the unreliable Afghan government — that America will not tolerate endless incompetence and corruption.

Regardless, Obama mentioned in his speech that the July 2011 date is not absolute, but could be changed based on “conditions on the ground.”

Obama’s erstwhile supporters on the left are suspicious of his schedule, too, but for a different reason.

They predict the president’s policy will commit the United States to maintaining a military presence in Afghanistan for decades. Many have cited as examples our experiences in Japan and Germany after World War II.

I take it that I’m supposed to be discouraged by such comparisons.

But I can’t bring it off.

If Afghanistan, within the next decade, becomes a prosperous and peaceful democracy, as both Japan and Germany did while rubble from the war was still strewn about, then it’s likely that the price America has paid, although high, will count as a bargain.

Certain conservatives, even while approving of Obama’s decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, have chastised the president for giving a speech which lacked the oratorical intensity of one delivered by Churchill or Reagan.

But I look at the historical record and I don’t see the parallels.

This is neither 1940, nor 1987.

Afghanistan is not Nazi Germany. We confront no comparable enemy, no omnipotent foe which can be defeated only by a country that has been spurred by its charismatic leader to commit every ounce of its resources, human and otherwise, to a single task.

Nor is Afghanistan the Soviet Union (a fact to which a generation of Red Army officials would readily attest).

We can’t succeed here by playing a game of economic (and atomic) chicken, hoping our adversaries, or at least their treasuries, swerve first.

Some of the pundits whose words I have read or heard in the past week seem to believe Obama is pandering to both ends of the political spectrum — a sort of catholic sycophant.

But it seems to me that the president is more a pragmatist than a panderer.

He’s not trying to please either of the thin factions who teeter on the ideological edges. He is, it seems to me, striving to represent the masses who keep the whole thing in balance.

People who expect their government to protect them, but to do so without getting a bunch of their sons and daughters and husbands and wives blown up for no good reason.

That’s what I expect from my government, too.

I don’t know that Obama will succeed in Afghanistan.

But I am optimistic.

He has, if nothing else, proved that he is nobody’s lackey.

It takes loads of guts, after all, for the star of the Democratic Party to mimic the policies of George W. Bush.

I don’t care, in any case, if the “change we can believe in” isn’t in some respects all that different from what it replaced.

I just care that it works.

Rich Coller survived the Korean War but his hearing wasn’t as fortunate.

I met Rich 11 years ago, and I remember that I had to embellish my voice with a few extra decibels.

I had called Rich because I was looking for a story for Veterans Day in 1998. I don’t recall who told me about him. He was the first Korean War veteran I had interviewed.

Rich was an artilleryman, which wouldn’t be a problem except the Army apparently didn’t issue ear protection to its gunners in those days.

After being exposed thousands of times to the concussive blast from a 105-millimeter howitzer, Rich’s eardrums were pretty well worn out.

We spent an hour or so one early November afternoon talking in Rich’s living room. I wrote the story, and so far as I can remember I never had occasion to speak with him again.

I enjoyed our brief time together. Rich was friendly, open and a gifted raconteur besides. As was the case with every combat veteran I’ve interviewed, I came away feeling that I owed the man something more than a thousand words.

When I got to work this Monday I checked my e-mail messages. There was one from the State Police, about a fatal accident on the freeway.

I read the names Richard Lee Coller and Ernestine Mae Coller.

The accident that killed Rich Coller and his wife was no more tragic, of course, than any other in which people die for no good reason.

Yet it seems to me that Rich deserved better than to take his last breath on the cold hard ground.

I wish all our veterans, all those who put their vulnerable bodies in the way of blind stupid lead and steel, would instead lapse from this life in tranquility, lying beneath soft warm blankets in the quiet of the night.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.