You don’t have to observe American politics for very long to understand that politicians routinely break their promises. This is especially true and obvious when it comes to US Presidents. In some cases, the promises seem to be sincere and the president may have even really tried to get them implemented, only to be blocked by political obstruction in Congress. In other cases, it’s more clear that the promise was nothing more than a rhetorical flourish in the first place.
Of course, our political campaign system is very much structured to produce this effect. In the primary, Democrats usually run to the left on everything; in recent years, this has meant advocating more for peace and civil liberties. Then in the general election, they walk many of these ideas back and try to prove they’re just as tough as the Republicans are. For Republicans, this works in the opposite direction. The primary typically sees them take more extreme and awful positions on foreign policy, torture, etc., and then they try to pretend to be a little less inclined toward violence in the general election. The inevitable result is that the same candidate will often take different, and contradictory, positions as they move from the primary to the general election. And if they get to the White House, they often change their another time, either in response to political realities they confront or because they no longer need to appeal to the American people, at least for the time-being.
So campaign promises get broken all the time, and it’s pretty much par for the course at this point. Ambitious declarations immediately upon winning an election or taking office can basically be seen in the same way. Thus, although President Obama declared that Guantanamo Bay would be closed within a year of taking office, this went the way of most promises–unfulfilled.
Recently, President Obama has taken the usual political art of breaking promises to an entirely new level. Back in 2013, the Obama Administration suffered a devastating defeat in its first push for initiating a major war with Syria. They intended to let Congress weigh in on the proposal, and when it became clear that the pro-war side was going to lose that vote, it was promptly canceled.
In the aftermath of this, the Administration realized it needed a better and more subtle approach to get the American people to accept another military intervention. The rise of ISIS certainly helped provide a more compelling rationale for US involvement than President Assad of Syria ever could. But that alone probably wouldn’t be sufficient to justify another US war in the Middle East, when none of the others have worked.
Thus, to mollify American fears of an extended conflict and more Americans getting sacrificed for an obviously counterproductive policy, Obama pledged that there would be “no boots on the ground”. With each escalation in Iraq and Syria, this refrain was offered. And now, with the regular announcements of more troops in Iraq and Syria, it’s been proven false.
It’s tempting, of course, to see this as just another broken promise from a politician. And in some ways, it is. But it’s also different and worse in two important respects.
First, this wasn’t a campaign promise. President Obama made this pledge repeatedly while he was president. He knew all of the political realities. And since it’s in the realm of foreign policy, where the president has near-complete discretion (in the modern era), this was entirely within his own power. Congress barely has enough initiative to pass a budget; it certainly doesn’t have the wherewithal to start (or even declare) a new war. Thus, this is an area where President Obama basically cannot be forced to take an action he disagrees with. Yet, he did it anyway. And he did it in spite of no ISIS- or Syria-directed plot on American soil. (The reader will recall that the San Bernardino attack occurred relatively recently, after the pledge had already been broken, and was not organized by ISIS anyway, though the attackers did sympathize with their cause.)
The second way that the Obama Administration’s conduct is now unique and tragically worse is the way it has tried to deny their dishonesty. At first, this meant trying to change the meaning of “no boots on the ground” to mean no large battalions on the ground. And now, they appear to have pivoted to outright denying the pledge ever occurred in the first place.
In a recent press conference, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby denied that anyone ever said there would be “no boots on the ground” in spite of the fact that this can be disproved in all of three seconds with a Google search. It’s tough to imagine John Kirby actually believes this, given that it’s his whole job to know and defend the Administration’s / Pentagon’s talking points. So instead, we must assume it’s a deliberate PR decision to openly troll the American media and public to see just how quickly we are all willing to forget things that even the most casual observer has to still know. Every President and politician tries to rewrite history in their favor, but the Obama Administration appears to be breaking new ground by trying to do it so quickly and blatantly. It remains to be seen whether many people will notice and care. Given that it’s on an issue as important as war and peace, let’s hope the answer is yes.
For more on this, and to read the funny-if-it-wasn’t-sad exchange where Kirby tries to deny reality, check out Justin Raimondo’s write-up at Antiwar.com: