Grading Obama’s Afghanistan Speech: Surge or Exit Strategy?

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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-.

Read More:

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.

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5 responses »

  1. While not perfect, it’s a start. 30,000 is not 60,000, yet 30,000 is still better than leaving entirely. If Obama listened to his party or a good portion of the nation, the “forgotten war” would have become the “lost war.” My major problem with the speech is the 2011 withdrawal date, which was rather vague. Yet as Robert Kagan said on the matter,

    “So we can thank goodness that the buck really does stop somewhere, and that the people we elect to the presidency, whatever their failings, do not want to be the ones who presided over American defeat in battle. No doubt they have a keen understanding that, while they might be applauded for losing in the salons of Washington and New York, the American public would not look on defeat so kindly. That is why I am not as worried as some of my colleagues about the July 2011 date Obama set for the beginning of American withdrawal. If we and our Afghan and allied partners are succeeding at that point, the timing may make sense. If we aren’t, it won’t. It will not be any easier for Obama to embrace defeat in 18 months than it is today.”
    Link:http://www.carnegieendowment.org/publications/index.cfm?fa=view&id=24256

    Let’s hope that Obama knows he is doing.

  2. I hear you, Daniel. 30,000 boots on the ground is better than nothing or leaving tomorrow.

    As to hoping Obama knows what he is doing, I am not very confident.

    I generally agree with Kagan and with much of what you quote above. However, when he concludes the paragraph with, “It will not be any easier for Obama to embrace defeat in 18 months than it is today,” he displays a bias towards the primacy of domestic politics. It may not be the case for most voters, but I am much less concerned about the electoral fate of Obama in 18 months than the fate of Afghanistan and the possible geopolitical consequences of how this war is resolved.

    But rather than expressing my personal point of view, this post was more about examining how Obama fared with some of the audiences he was trying to convince, placate or subdue. I included the military as well as Democratic and Republican partisans, activists and politicians. I thought he did below average with all of these groups.

    Most of this is due to content but it also relates to his delivery. I am not a huge fan of Obama. Yet I recognize the impact of his oratory when he is on point even when I disagree with him. It is a power president George W. Bush rarely, if ever, exhibited. But this element was lacking the other night.

    Reading the responses today and yesterday from those on the left and right leaves me thinking scarcely anyone truly liked the speech. There might be some things here or there that they agreed with but neither group as a whole seems satisfied.

  3. I only caught bits of the speech but I would agree that Obama looked drawn.

    I think the euphoria of getting to the Presidency has worn off and the mighty decisions that are made in that office is pressing down on his shoulders.

    He’s visibly less cheerful, may be has even aged?

    I wonder if this whole episode (difficult decisions taking an eternity to make) is the shape of things to come?

    I can understand why he gave the cut off date of 2011, but all that means is the Taliban has to bide its time until 2012 and they’ve got the country again. Not a smart option.

  4. *forgot the “what.”

    “There might be some things here or there that they agreed with but neither group as a whole seems satisfied.”

    That’s for sure.

    Sort of on the same subject, a recent poll found a large percentage of Americans turning isolationist on foreign policy matters (link: http://blog.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2009/12/03/us_isolationism_at_an_all_time_high ).

    I’m pretty sure these same people are the ones who are against our stay in Afghanistan (and obviously Iraq). The more isolationist the electorate becomes, the more likely a politician will champion that sentiment, which means less involvement in nation building. Bad days are ahead (not just for us, yet for the poor souls stuck in development limbo).

  5. No idea if you’ll see this message (it has been almost a month, though it seems longer for some reason), but I would give the speech an A-, perhaps a B+. I say this because, as is so often the case with Obama, the speech was intended not to convince people but to shape public opinion. It did this on three fronts.

    On the Afghan front, the effect was electric, with massive confusion and dismay at the withdrawal date, tempered by frantic officials reassuring people that Obama didn’t really mean it. It was therefore a great success, because a substantial part of Obama’s new strategy (and the only major area where it substantially differs with McCrystal’s original recommendation) consists of pushing Karzai to pick himself up by his own bootstraps and start building a government that won’t collapse as soon as the Americans leave. Ideally we would just remove him somehow, but even if you assume that that used to be an option, it definitely isn’t now. I therefore give the speech an A in this category.

    On the progressive front, it seriously pissed a lot of people off. This is also good, because in order for Obama’s act of saying two totally different things simultaneously to work, one of them needs to have teeth. The more progressives turn against the war, the less certain Karzai will be that Obama is correct when he says not to worry about withdrawal. Karzai’s a smart (though inept) person, and he knows that if the Congress votes to strip the war effort of funding, there’s only so much that Obama can do. I thus give Obama an A in this category as well.

    The obvious problem with the above is that if the progressives have teeth, they may bite, and withdrawing from Afghanistan would of course make it rather difficult to succeed there. This is where the Republican front comes in. In order to defeat a progressive motion to strip funding, there will need to be a number of Republicans supporting the war, ideally enough to filibuster. It initially appeared that Obama had fared relatively poorly on this front, with a number of Republicans voicing support for withdrawal. This has since died down, though, so I’m going to give him a C or perhaps a B.

    We shall have to see how it all ultimately works out.

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