Freedom’s Just Another Word

Frank Rich
Published 9/4/2010
New York Times
Op-Ed Columnist

This excerpt from a
New York Times op-ed column was written by Frank Rich in response to President Obama’s speech on August 31, "The Combat Mission in Iraq Ended. " The link to the full speech is included at the end of this posting.

What was so grievously missing from Obama’s address was any feeling for what has happened to our country during the seven-and-a-half-year war whose “end” he was marking. That legacy of anger and grief is what “Freedom” mainlines to its readers. In chronicling one Midwestern family as it migrates from St. Paul to Washington during the 9/11 decade, Franzen does for our traumatic time what Tom Wolfe’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities” did for the cartoonish go-go 1980s. Or perhaps, more pertinently, what “The Great Gatsby” did for the ominous boom of the 1920s. The heady intoxication of freedom is everywhere in “Freedom,” from extramarital sexual couplings to the consumer nirvana of the iPod to Operation Iraqi Freedom itself. Yet most everyone, regardless of age or calling or politics, is at war — not with terrorists, but with depression, with their consciences and with one another.

This mood has not lifted and may be thickening as we trudge toward Year 10 in Afghanistan. But Obama only paid it lip service. It’s a mystery why a candidate so attuned to the nation’s pulse, most especially on the matter of war, has grown tone deaf in office. On Tuesday, Obama asked the country to turn the page on Iraq as if that were as easy as, say, voting for him in 2008. His brief rhetorical pivot from the war to the economy only raised the question of why the crisis of joblessness has not merited a prime-time Oval Office speech of its own.

That Obama did consider Iraq worthy of that distinction — one heretofore shared only by the BP oil spill — was hardly justified by his tepid pronouncements of progress (“credible elections that drew a strong turnout”) or his tidy homilies about the war’s impact. “Our unity at home was tested,” he said, as if all those bygones were now bygones and all the toxins unleashed by this fiasco had miraculously evaporated once we drew down to 50,000 theoretically non-combat troops.

Americans are less forgiving. In recent polls, 60 percent of those surveyed thought the war in Iraq was a mistake, 70 percent thought it wasn’t worth American lives, and only a quarter it made us safer from terrorism. This sour judgment is entirely reality-based. The war failed in all its stated missions except the toppling of Saddam Hussein.

While we were distracted searching for Iraq’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, Iran began revving up its actual nuclear program and Osama bin Laden and his fanatics ran free to regroup in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We handed Al Qaeda a propaganda coup by sacrificing America’s signature values on the waterboard. We disseminated untold billions of taxpayers’ dollars from Baghdad’s Green Zone, much of it cycled corruptly through well-connected American companies on no-bid contracts, yet Iraq still doesn’t have reliable electricity or trustworthy security. Iraq’s “example of freedom,” as President Bush referred to his project in nation building and democracy promotion, did not inspire other states in the Middle East to emulate it. It only perpetuated the Israeli-Palestinian logjam it was supposed to help relieve.

For this sad record, more than 4,400 Americans and some 100,000 Iraqis (a conservative estimate) paid with their lives. Some 32,000 Americans were wounded, and at least two million Iraqis, representing much of the nation’s most valuable human capital, went into exile. The war’s official cost to U.S. taxpayers is now at $750 billion.

Of all the commentators on the debacle, few speak with more eloquence or credibility than Andrew Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University who as a West Point-trained officer served in Vietnam and the first gulf war and whose son, also an Army officer, was killed in Iraq in 2007. Writing in The New Republic after Obama’s speech, he decimated many of the war’s lingering myths, starting with the fallacy, reignited by the hawks taking a preposterous victory lap last week, that “the surge” did anything other than stanch the bleeding from the catastrophic American blundering that preceded it. As Bacevich concluded: “The surge, now remembered as an epic feat of arms, functions chiefly as a smokescreen, obscuring a vast panorama of recklessness, miscalculation and waste that politicians, generals, and sundry warmongers are keen to forget.”

Bacevich also wrote that “common decency demands that we reflect on all that has occurred in bringing us to this moment.” Americans’ common future demands it too. The war’s corrosive effect on the home front is no less egregious than its undermining of our image and national security interests abroad. As the Pentagon rebrands Operation Iraqi Freedom as Operation New Dawn — a “name suggesting a skin cream or dishwashing liquid,” Bacevich aptly writes — the whitewashing of our recent history is well under way. The price will be to keep repeating it.


Source:  New York Times: September 4, 2010, see full article at:

The full text of President Obama’s speech on The Combat Mission in Iraq Ended is located at: