[Backup is on the way...]
I listened to President Obama’s speech on Afghanistan at West Point and it was not entirely encouraging. His reluctant admission that more troops are needed was welcome but I am concerned he is not supportive of an effective counterinsurgency program as was approved by President George W. Bush during the “surge” in Iraq.
Perhaps a better way of putting it is I am puzzled whether his speech argued in favor of letting facts on the ground determine the length of American involvement or whether he is committed to removing American troops in eighteen months. I was left thinking he was trying to say too many different things to too many different audiences at the same time.
As I tell my students before they give their oral presentations, “always be aware of your audience.” In their case determining the audience is easy. They are doing the presentation for me, in order to receive a grade, as well as their colleagues, in order to edify–but not confuse–them.
President Obama finds himself in a far more difficult situation. He has multiple audiences he needs to appeal to. Making matters worse, what one group wants to hear is often in opposition to another group.
The most obvious audience is that of the West Point cadets and experienced officer corps. If I were grading Obama regarding his appeal to this audience it would be a D. The primary reason is he never once mentioned victory as an outcome of his strategy. Why does this matter? Put yourself in the mindset of an officer who has (or will soon have) enlisted soldiers under his command. One question that would likely spring to mind is, “if my commander in chief is not convinced victory is possible, what do I tell my troops?” That is not a situation an officer wants to find himself in, to say the least.
Another audience are the legislators, activists and partisans of the president’s political party. As the health care debate has shown, Democrats are not united on much of anything. Regarding military action, one the one hand, most Blue Dog Democrats support a strong military and the use of force. But the wing of the Democratic Party that was largely responsible for the president’s victory are the progressives. Most of them want the troops home yesterday. The president’s speech contained some tough talk regarding Al Qaeda and the Taliban for the Blue Dogs and a clear timetable for the progressives. Or, was that a clear timetable? What was that mention of “facts on the ground” all about? Isn’t that what President Bush said time and time again when asked when we would withdrawal from Iraq? Obama did better with Democrats but not great, C-range territory.
The final audience to consider are Republicans, the political opposition. They do not seem very pleased with the president’s speech either. Some dismissed his strategy out of hand before he even gave his speech while others have been railing against him for taking so long to get his act together. Many wanted–but did not expect–Obama to commit to the 60,000 troops that General McChrystal asked for. They were also perturbed by his references to torture and shutting down Gitmo. So he gets another D.
Final Grade: D+
Setting aside how he did with these audiences, just a few words about my own perspective. First, I am not as critical as some that Obama took a while to put his Afghanistan plan together. Yet I agree that it is was too long, especially for someone who made a more effective Afghanistan strategy a centerpiece of his presidential campaign. Progressives seem to have forgotten about that. Second, I concur it is important to let President Karzai know we are not going to be there forever. But did President Obama have to announce the timetable to the entire world? Couldn’t he have done this more diplomatically? Third, the political cheap shots were a disappointment. So how did he do for this audience of one? I give him a C-.
Full transcript of the president’s speech here.
Clive Crook at the Atlantic found the speech contradictory:
Obama tried to have it both ways: he gave the generals another 30,000 soldiers, almost as many as they had asked for, but told the country (and anybody else who might have been listening) that disengagement would begin in just 18 months.
At its center, in other words, the speech contradicted itself. You cannot argue, as he tried to, that (a) this is a war America must win to safeguard its own security, and (b) whether the US is winning or not, the troops will start to come home in 2011. If they can start to come home in 18 months regardless, why not start to bring them home now?
That was not the only contradiction. We are against “nation building” (again). But as well as creating the country’s own security forces out of next to nothing, we want a civilian surge to build capacity and foster development. Run that by me once more.
Fred Barnes at the Weekly Standard found it disapopinting:
I had hoped Obama would declare that nothing will deter him, as commander-in-chief, from prevailing in Afghanistan. But it turns out a lot of things might deter him. He listed a few of them: the cost of the war, its length (if more than 18 months from January 2010), the failure of Afghans to step up to the task sufficiently. He hedged.
Americans and our allies were looking for more, I believe. To have rallied the country and the world, Obama needed to indicate he would lead a fight to win in Afghanistan, with the help of allies if possible, but with the armed forces of the U.S. alone if necessary. He didn’t say anything like that. He didn’t come close.
While Joan Walsh over at Slate has this to say:
At the moment he needed all of his persuasive powers, Obama gave the worst major speech of his presidency. I admit: I expected to be, even wanted to be, carried away a bit by Obama’s trademark rhetorical magic. But I wasn’t, not even a little. I found the speech rushed, sing-songy and perfunctory, delivered by rote. I despise the right-wing Obama-Teleprompter taunts, but even I wanted to say, Look at your audience, not the damn Teleprompter, Mr. President. Obama looked haggard, his eyes deeper set, and I believe this decision pained him. But I’m not sure even he believes it’s the right decision.