July 2011

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Turning the Corner

By Thomas Vincent

Interested readers are invited to check out Tom's Political Blog "Certain Doubt"

If ever there was an overused cliche, it has to be: "turning the corner." Along with "the light at the end of the tunnel," and "beginning a new chapter," these stale chestnuts should be banned from any self respecting political speechwriter's cupboard. And yet every day we are subjected to speeches in which we have "turned the corner" on fundraising, or winning an election, or even the economy and job creation.

Now, in a stunning display of mediocre speech writing, President Barack Obama has once again trotted out this tired, expired rhetorical horse and proceeded to flog it mercilessly, telling a group of soldiers at Fort Drum that America has indeed "turned the corner," in Afghanistan.

That a Commander-in-Chief should grasp at straws when trying to boost the morale of troops - especially troops who are fighting a war that has been going on for ten years - is no surprise. However, the fact that Mr. Obama used the phrase almost in the same sentence as the one in which he informs those same troops they'll have to keep fighting and killing, and dying - virtually forever - borders on the obscene. Telling soldiers we have turned the corner and then declaring only five thousand troops are coming home is like the pilot who tries to temper the bad news that the fourth engine has caught fire by saying: "but we're making really great time."

The war in Afghanistan is nowhere near over. We are nowhere near withdrawing our troops from the Middle East. Declaring the pitiful "drawdown" from Afghanistan as some kind of watershed moment in our invasion and occupation of that country is specious. It is an insult, both to the intelligence of the American people and the honor of those that serve in the armed forces.

Of course one can see how the visual of turning the corner would appeal to a politician who ran his last campaign on the promise of "change." There are many kinds of corners, however. One wonders, just what sort of corner the president is referring to? Is it the sort of definitive absolute decision implied by taking the "exit only" ramp on the highway? Or is it more of a gradual turn that might morph into a chicane or "ess" curve, the kind that bends back around so we might actually wind up at the end of the day going in the same direction as we were when the whole debacle started.

Are we in a car? On foot? Or perhaps we're on a train. This railroad image is particularly disturbing because of the implications of inevitability. For many trains, coming around the bend tends to be a more or less constant condition. (Insert mental image of a model train around the Christmas tree.)

And of course as any engineer can tell you, it doesn't matter how many corners you turn; if the bridge ahead of you is out, you're still headed for disaster.

By signaling that he plans to withdraw only 10,000 troops this year and maybe 20,000 more by 2014, the President hardly seems to be implying the kind of sharp turn that so many American's - and presumably the soldiers as well - were hoping for. Sadly, I feel the situation in Afghanistan is not one that's going to be solved by merely "turning a corner." Ultimately What may be needed in Afghanistan is not just to turn the corner, but to turn completely around and head back in the other direction. That was what many of us thought Candidate Obama was referring to with his rhetorical eloquence calling for change and hope.

Apparently with regard to war at least, the change Mr. Obama visualized had less to do with reversing direction even significantly altering our course. The only corner president Obama seems intent on turning is the one in his imagination. For the rest of us it's full steam ahead and damn the missing trestle.