Narrative Closure Eludes Obama in Latest Speech

by Bud Goodall

President Obama’s speech from the Oval Office last night announced the end of combat operations in Iraq. The speech was largely driven by his choice of a defining metaphor:

“We have sent our young men and women to make enormous sacrifices in Iraq, and spent vast resources abroad at a time of tight budgets at home” . . . “Through this remarkable chapter in the history of the United States and Iraq, we have met our responsibility. Now, it’s time to turn the page.”

But as I’ll explain, that page-turning metaphor fails to deliver the closure that is so important to a good narrative.

Ever since he assumed the presidency, I have been following Obama’s “narrative gap” on matters related to the conflict formerly known as “the global war on terror.” His speech in Cairo seemed like a good start for defining a new beginning in our relations with Muslims and with the Middle East.

Yet I found his subsequent speech at West Point to be a narrative failure. It neither advanced the themes of the Cairo address nor broke new ground in the way Americans (or indeed the world) were to understand our continuing role in the Middle East.

I was then greatly pleased to see a major leap forward in his masterful Nobel Prize address in Stockholm. There he not only outlined a clear and–in my view–responsible mission for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also complicated the dominant binary of war/peace that so divided public opinion.

Viewed as a narrative trajectory, the previous speeches defined the U.S. mission as a reluctant but noble quest, casting the women and men fighting the war in the role of reluctant heroes who aimed to secure the safety of war-torn countries and reestablish local authority for policing and governing them. The speeches reserved for Obama the behind-the-scenes role of a wise wizard who commands “the long view.”

In such narrative constructions–think of “Lord of the Rings” or “Star Wars”–otherwise ordinary citizens are called to action (usually against their better judgment) to fight dark forces that threaten their way of life (or sometimes the security of the universe). The wise wizards provide helpful advice and direction, but rarely give final answers. Nevertheless, these oft-told tales–whether in fiction, film, nonfiction, or presidential speeches–provide powerful cultural expectations for not only “what should happen next” but also for “how it should (or must) end.” In other words they create expectations for closure.

The president’s speech last night offered him the opportunity to provide narrative closure on Iraq. Did our would-be wise wizard succeed? The short answer is that he did not. Those on the left wanted to hear our president blame his predecessor for an unwarranted war that cost thousands of American lives, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, and over a trillion dollars in treasure that has been a major cause of our burgeoning budget deficit. There was no blame for the Bush administration; in fact, the president was gracious in his avoidance of blame. There was even praise for Bush’s patriotism.

For those on the right it was (predictably) even less successful. As Representative John Boehner (R-OH) observed even before the speech was given, it didn’t give credit for the surge where it was due–the Bush administration. David Gergen, commenting on CNN on the speech on behalf of mainstream Republicans, said the message that Obama “loved the troops but hated the war” probably wouldn’t help. Even Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, when asked after the speech whether the war had been worth it, replied somewhat evasively if honestly, “It really requires a historian’s perspective in terms of what happens here in the long run.”

Beyond these partisan interpretations, Obama’s end-of-war speech was also notable for what it did not include. There was no declaration of “victory,” no mention of “democracy,” and no clean announcement of an exit from the country or region. There was no mention of the awkward ironies that permeate our seven-year involvement in Iraq:

  • We declared victory after two months of war despite the fact that nothing has been won.
  • The democratic government that we promised has yet to fully materialize and is possibly even in serious jeopardy.
  • No clean exit was likely, there would be no immediate “happy ending,” because there is rarely a clean-cut outcome in this kind of conflict.

Instead we are “turning the page” from combat in Iraq to combat in Afghanistan, and the story goes on. This is a fact that is neither popular with the American people nor with politicians on either side of the aisle.

Realizing this, President Obama, in his role as wise wizard, once again affirmed the longer view:

“One of the lessons of our effort in Iraq is that American influence around the world is not a function of military force alone. We must use all elements of our power — including our diplomacy, our economic strength, and the power of America’s example — to secure our interests and stand by our allies. And we must project a vision of the future that is based not just on our fears, but also on our hopes — a vision that recognizes the real dangers that exist around the world, but also the limitless possibility of our time.”

Given these responses to the speech, it would be wrong of me to suggest it was successful. There was good in it–praising the troops for their valor and sacrifice, ending the official combat commitment to Iraq, and reminding us that we still have responsibilities to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat” al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But it was narratively and pragmatically unsatisfying because it clearly demonstrated a lack of closure so necessary to a successful “end of war” speech.

Put in the terms of narrative trajectories associated with heroic quests: order has not been fully restored and justice does not yet prevail. True to his theme, Obama announced only that we had “turned the page.” But what he failed to do was close the book.