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Obama’s Afghanistan Speech

President Obama’s speech last night was — to state the obvious — a tough one to give. Just think of the many constituencies the president had to address: not only the American public, but the military who have been in need of some direction, the Democratic base, terminally cranky Republicans, the Karzai government, the Pakistani government, and Bozo the Clown to boot. No one constituency would be fully pleased.

We all know that President Obama gives a wonderfully inspiring speech. I had a hunch that this address would not fall into that category. Rather than inspiring the public to work towards a distant American nirvana (as he did in the March 2008 Philadelphia race speech), West Point was more of a sales job.

With all that in mind, I was looking for the president to discuss five major topics:

1. Make a case for why we were in Afghanistan.

2. Explain our forces’ mission.

3. Address how he would work with the Karzai government.

4. Clearly outline the strategy for Pakistan.

5. State his interpretation of an exit strategy.

To put a “grade” on it, I’d give the president 3.5/5. Here’s why.

First, I thought he made a compelling case reminding Americans of why we’re there. He spent the first several paragraphs going over the history of what led us to this point. That’s been the toughest issue for much of hard left to grapple with — America has clear national security interests in Afghanistan, and it is unfortunate, but necessary, to enact a robust strategy to ensure the country’s safety.

It’s a rationale that has been so difficult for some to accept. Writing in the New York Review of Books, Garry Wills says:

[Obama] said that he would not oppose war in general, but dumb wars. On that basis, we went for him. And now he betrays us. Although he talked of a larger commitment to Afghanistan during his campaign, he has now officially adopted his very own war, one with all the disqualifications that he attacked in the Iraq engagement. This war too is a dumb one.

But it’s not a dumb war. It’s a necessary one, and I struggle to understand why Mr. Wills has become so disenchanted with President Obama over this decision when even he acknowledges that the president campaigned pledging a “larger commitment” to Afghanistan. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

Second, I didn’t think the president went far enough in explaining the counter-insurgency strategy that American forces would be undertaking. To me, he missed an opportunity to explain that our forces are there to promote peace by protecting the Afghan population from the Taliban. So only half a point there.

Third, I was impressed with the president’s emphasis on working with and around the Karzai government. His particular emphasis on “Afghan ministries, governors, and local leaders” indicated the White House’s recognition that bypassing Kabul is an effective part to regional development across the whole country. A full point from me.

Fourth, the Pakistan strategy was certainly mentioned, if not emphasized, as one of the pathways to a successful disengagement. Sure, as the president said, we will “strengthen Pakistan’s capacity to target those groups that threaten our countries, and have made it clear that we cannot tolerate a safe haven for terrorists whose location is known and whose intentions are clear.” Yes, we know it’s necessary, but I have a nagging sense that the “how” hasn’t been worked out yet. The White House’s overture on a comprehensive partnership deal with Pakistan is encouraging, but only part of the solution – a half-point.

Ah, and finally, that exit strategy. I would have preferred that our exit from Afghanistan be measured in terms of progress, not calendar dates, which merits a half-point deduction. I think David Ignatius came very close to summing up my feelings:

Obama thinks that setting deadlines will force the Afghans to get their act together at last. That strikes me as the most dubious premise of his strategy. He is telling his adversary that he will start leaving on a certain date, and telling his ally to be ready to take over then, or else. That’s the weak link in an otherwise admirable decision — the idea that we strengthen our hand by announcing in advance that we plan to fold it.

For a speech that was sure to please no one entirely, I thought it was a brave attempt at explaining a tough, unpopular, but ultimately correct decision.


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