“I am haunted by those deaths. I am haunted by those wounds.” Thus spoke President Barack Obama this week to the more than 1,000 graduating cadets at the U.S Military Academy, West Point, N.Y. He had good reason to use those words fraught with so much pain, because he himself had deployed previous West Point cadets to Afghanistan after their graduation, deployed them to one of history’s graveyards, where some of them met their deaths or were grievously wounded. That is a burden all presidents must bear when we go to war. And it is not lightly borne. It haunts the soul, no matter how just the cause.
The president had traveled to West Point to deliver not just a commencement address but a major foreign policy speech. A day earlier, he had spoken briefly at the White House about his plans to reduce the number of American troops in Afghanistan from their present level of 30,000 to some 9,800 by the end of the year, and reducing that number until virtually no troops are left by the end of 2016, the last year of his presidency. Was there politics involved in both the numbers and the timing? Of course there was. Obama actually increased the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan by some 30,000, until the total reached more than 100,000. The results of that surge are still a matter of debate. But Obama came into office promising to wind down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has done that in Iraq and is in the process of doing that in Afghanistan. To his critics on the left, the pace is not fast enough. To the critics on the right, who seem to believe that leadership flows mainly from the barrel of a gun, the pace is too fast. But the American public is almost certainly behind the president as he withdraws from Afghanistan.
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