President Obama spoke today to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The part I liked best was his commitment to the war effort in Afghanistan:

This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity. Those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again. If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans. So this is not only a war worth fighting. This is a—this is fundamental to the defense of our people.

I was less impressed by his continuing refusal to make a similar commitment to victory (a word he never used) in Iraq. He bragged about transferring more control to Iraqi security forces and then said:

As we move forward, the Iraqi people must know that the United States will keep its commitments. And the American people must know that we will move forward with our strategy. . . . We will remove all our troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. And for America, the Iraq war will end. By moving forward in Iraq, we’re able to refocus on the war against al Qaeda and its extremist allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Not a word about achieving peace, security, and democracy in Iraq—he defines moving forward as moving out. Luckily, so far we have been able to accomplish both goals at once: stabilize the situation in Iraq (notwithstanding some spectacular recent attacks) while starting to draw down our troop levels. But General Ray Odierno has just said that he needs to send more troops to northern Iraq to calm down a volatile situation. What if planned troop cuts have to be suspended or delayed? President Obama’s words don’t give much hope that he would acquiesce in such a step. On the other hand, he has proved a lot more moderate on Iraq than his campaign rhetoric would have indicated, so it would probably be a mistake to read too much into his words.

One other element of the speech deserves a raised eyebrow. That is his claim that “my budget increases defense spending.” Obama went on to talk about how his budget has “increased the size of the Army and the Marine Corps” and provides “more of the Army helicopters, crews, and pilots urgently needed in Afghanistan; the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance that gives our troops the advantage; the special operations forces that can deploy on a moment’s notice; and for all those serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, including our National Guard and Reserve, more of the protective gear and armored vehicles that save lives.”

The president is being more than a bit disingenuous on that point. He sounds like Ronald Reagan but acts more like Jimmy Carter. Yes his budget increases defense spending—but at such a paltry rate that his budget barely keeps up with inflation. Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution revealed the legerdemain in this article:

The administration is … adopting a policy of zero real growth in the “base budget” (the part that does not include war costs, which are too unpredictable to include in this analysis). Specifically, the base budget is to grow 2 percent a year over the next five years. But with the inflation rate expected to average over 1.5 percent, the net effect is essentially no real growth. Cumulatively, that would leave us about $150 billion short of actual funding requirements through 2014. . . .

For the Defense Department to merely tread water, a good rule of thumb is that its inflation-adjusted budget must grow about 2 percent a year (roughly $10 billion annually, each and every year).

In his VFW speech, Obama pledged, “We will equip our forces with the assets and technologies they need to fight and win.” That may be true for the very near term, but for the long term, he’s already violated that pledge with his very first defense budget.

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