What I heard tonight

Earlier today I wondered whether President Obama’s speech about Afghanistan would sound more like a description of a war plan or a structured settlement of a legal dispute. What I heard tonight tilted decidedly in the latter direction. To be precise, the speech sounded to me like a slick lawyer trying to sell a dubious settlement to a skeptical client or, in this case, set of clients.
Consistent with slick salesmanship – as well as the president’s character – the speech was quite self-referential. Providing a potted history of our military efforts in the war on terrorism, Obama took shots at his predecessor and attempted to cast himself as the hero throughout. Thus, he patted himself on the back for opposing the war in Iraq, on which he blamed the current difficulties in Afghanistan.
Obama also patted himself on the back for bringing the war in Iraq to a “responsible end.” But he failed to mention the surge in Iraq, which was instrumental in turning the tide to the point that it became possible to speak of a responsible end.
The omission was odd inasmuch as Obama was pitching a similar surge in Afghanistan. This meant that the Iraq surge was more relevant to tonight’s speech than any other element of the history Obama was purporting to recount. Yet he was too partisan, and too embarrassed by his own opposition to the surge, to mention this vital decision.
It was therefore rank hypocrisy for Obama latter to decry the partisanship that has plagued the war on terrorism.
Obama then patted himself on the back for undertaking the lengthy review that led to the decision he announced tonight. He claimed that this process would result in no delay, since no plan presented to him called for troops to be deployed before 2010 in any event. This is a non sequitur, and it remains to be seen whether we are successfully able to deploy troops as quickly, effectively, and in the same numbers as would have been the case if Obama had made his decisions significantly earlier.
As to Obama’s plan – the “settlement” – it entails deploying significantly fewer troops than the number General McChrystal asked for (about three-fourths of the total, as I understand it). Obama apparently hopes to make up the difference by calling on our allies to add troops. He said he has sought such assistance but had nothing positive to report by way of any response he might have received. In any case, I wonder whether a high percentage of troops supplied by our allies would be interchangeable with U.S. troops.
More importantly, Obama set July 2011 as the target date for beginning our withdrawal. Although he did add that conditions on the ground will be taken into account, it is difficult to understand how the U.S. will secure the support and commitment it needs from a critical mass of Afghans when they know, or have strong reason to believe, we will be starting to pull out only about a year after we have ramped up.
Indeed, Obama’s timetable threatens to undermine not just the first prong of his strategy (military) but also second and third prongs (civilian and Pakistan). With only a short-term commitment, we’re not likely to exert much influence on civilian behavior. Nor are the Pakistanis likely to be impressed by an America that’s more interested in a prompt exit, so it can save money and focus on domestic issues (points Obama emphasized near the end of his speech), than in defeating its enemies.
Obama attempted to sell his timetable through his usual dishonest rhetorical tricks. He compared his approach favorably to a decade-long commitment. But no one has proposed that he make, much less publicly declare, a commitment of that length. Obama was positing a “false choice.” The real choice is between announcing a “fight and run” strategy and making no statement about when we intend to start leaving. The former approach is a new wrinkle in warfare.
Obama claimed that the Afghans need to know they will have to take responsibility for their affairs before long. The Afghans presumably understand that, as a matter of American politics, we won’t fight a losing batter indefinitely (nor should we). But this doesn’t mean we need to set a date for the beginning of our withdrawal. And setting one may well make it too problematic to side strongly with the U.S. during the brief period in which we’ll be a rising force.
The president’s salesmanship, much of it quite defensive, made for an uninspiring speech. Obama attempted to compensate by closing with a rhetorical bang. But, ever the salesman, he felt compelled to offer something for everyone. First, he expressed his solidarity with the left by patting himself on the back for opposing “torture” and for closing Gitmo (one day).
Then, having gone on forever without receiving applause, Obama finally shifted the speech away from himself and onto his country. He spoke eloquently about how the U.S. has underwritten the security of the world for six decades, without seeking domination, territory, or resources in return.
It was too little, too late as far as I was concerned, but it finally brought Obama applause. Perhaps there’s a lesson in this for the president.

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