TIME politics

The State of the Union’s Most Despicable Moment

U.S. first lady Michelle Obama applauds U.S. Army Ranger Remsburg during State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill in Washington
First lady Michelle Obama applauds U.S. Army Ranger Sgt. First Class Cory Remsburg, injured while serving in Afghanistan, during President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 28, 2014. Gary Cameron / Reuters

All Americans can appreciate Cory Remsburg's sacrifice — but our soldiers shouldn't be used as political props

The most emotionally powerful moment in Barack Obama’s State of the Union address was also its most morally dubious. The nation’s commander in chief drew attention to a wounded warrior while eliding any responsibility for placing the young man in harm’s way.

A record number of Americans – 60 percent – think the government is too powerful, says Gallup, which also finds a near record low percentage trusts the government “to do what is right.” Who can blame us? The government under Republican and Democratic presidents has spent virtually the entire 21st century sending young men and women to fight in ill-defined and unsuccessful elective wars. That’s bad enough, but then to use them as props in political speeches? That’s positively obscene.

After a typical laundry list of empty boasts (unemployment is down largely because labor force participation is tanking), fantasy policy prescriptions (“a new savings bond that encourages people to build a nest egg”?), and outright falsehoods (economic mobility has not declined), President Obama introduced America to Cory Remsburg, “a proud Army Ranger,” who “on his tenth deployment … was nearly killed by a massive roadside bomb in Afghanistan.”

Remsburg’s sacrifice is plain to see: He has a long, visible scar on his head and, the president explained, he “is still blind in one eye” and “still struggles on his left side.” Regardless of political affiliation and ideological positioning, all Americans can appreciate Remsburg’s willingness to serve while questioning whether President Obama is right to use such a soldier as an applause line in a political speech.

Shortly after taking office in 2009, Obama increased the number of troops in Afghanistan. In November 2009, he again added still more troops, tripling the number stationed there under George W. Bush. As America finally prepares to withdraw from what has become the country’s longest war, there is no reason to believe that stability, much less democracy, will last very long in Afghanistan (the same holds true in Iraq, where virtually all American troops have already been withdrawn and the country is sliding into sectarian violence).

What exactly was Remsburg – or any of his fellow soldiers – fighting for in Afghanistan? The president didn’t offer any explanation in his State of the Union address and you’d search his past speeches in vain for a clear and compelling reason, too.

Under George W. Bush, the U.S. invaded after the Taliban refused to cough up Osama bin Laden. That action was surely legitimate. But once the Taliban was vanquished and the trail of bin Laden went cold, the precise role of a massive and ongoing American occupation became increasingly vague even as our troop presence became increasingly larger.

Even more than economic meltdown, America’s 21st century has been defined by unfocused and ill-considered elective wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. While both were initially prosecuted in the name of preventing another 9/11 attack, 53 percent of Americans considered Iraq a mistake by the war’s 10th anniversary and just 17 percent support the Afghanistan war. None of that seems to resonate with Obama, who unilaterally (and unconstitutionally) committed the U.S. to NATO bombing raids in Libya despite no clear national interest and was just days away from bombing Syria before public outrage and a small handful of elected officials forced him to back down last fall.

“Patriotism is the last refuge to which a scoundrel clings,” Bob Dylan once sang, updating Samuel Johnson’s dark maxim. Obama’s gesture in the State of the Union will only accelerate the cynicism that already understandably dominates public opinion. There is no more serious decision that a government makes than to send its citizens a war. And there is nothing more disturbing than a president using soldiers’ sacrifices as a way of selling a grab-bag of domestic policy agenda items.

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