If you happen to live in Kabul or Jalalabad, Ghurian or Kandahar, then a U.S. presidential speech about Afghanistan is, indeed, about Afghanistan. If you live anywhere else on the planet, a U.S. presidential speech about Afghanistan is really about America — about American will, American purpose, American energy. How quickly the bright new dawn fades to the gray morning after. In Europe, the long awaited unveiling of this most thoughtful of presidents’ deliberations got mixed reviews — some bad, some brutal. Der Spiegel called it “half-hearted,” the Guardian called it “desperate.” And those are his friends.
You could watch the great orator’s listless, tentative performance with the sound down and get the basic message: I don’t need this in my life right now. If you read the text, it made even less sense. There’s something for everyone: A surge! . . . and a withdrawal. He’s agreed to surge for a bit, but only in preparation for a de-surge in 18 months’ time. I said on the radio that the speech reminded me of the English nursery rhyme:
The Grand Old Duke of York
He had ten thousand men
He marched them up to the top of the hill
And he marched them down again.
The Grand Young Duke of Hope has 30,000 men. He’ll march them up the Khyber Pass but he’ll march them down again in July 2011. If you’re some village headman who’s been making nice to the Americans, the Taliban have a whole new pitch for you: In a year and a half, the Yanks are going. But we’ll still be here.
“Our goal in war,” wrote Basil Liddell Hart, the great strategist of armored warfare, “can only be attained by the subjugation of the opposing will.” In other words, the object of war is not to destroy the enemy’s tanks but the enemy’s will. That goes treble if, like the Taliban and al-Qaeda, he hasn’t got any tanks in the first place. So what do you think Obama’s speech did for the enemy’s will? He basically told ’em: We can only stick another 19 months, so all you gotta do is hang in there for 20. And in an astonishingly vulgar line even by the standards of this White House’s crass speechwriters he justified his announcement of an exit date by saying it was “because the nation that I’m most interested in building is our own.” Or, as Frank Sinatra once observed, “It’s very nice to go trav’ling/But it’s so much nicer . . . to come home”:
“It’s very nice to just wander the camel route to Iraq . . . but it’s so much nicer, yes it’s oh so nice to wander back.”
As I said, Obama’s speech is only about Afghanistan if you’re in Afghanistan. If you’re in Moscow or Tehran, Pyongyang or Caracas, it’s about America. And what it told them is that, if you’re a local strongman with regional ambitions, or a rogue state going nuclear, or a mischief-making kleptocracy dusting off old tsarist dreams, this president is not going to be pressing your reset button. Strange how an allegedly compelling speaker is unable to fake even perfunctory determination and resilience. Strange, too, how all the sophisticated nuances of post-Bush foreign-policy “realism” seem so unreal when you’re up there trying to sell them as a coherent strategy. Go back half a decade to when the administration was threatening to shove democracy down the throats of every two-bit basket case whether they want it or not. Democratizing the planet is, in a Council of Foreign Relations sense, “unrealistic,” but talking it up is a very realistic way of messing with the dictators’ heads. A pipsqueak like Boy Assad sleeps far more soundly today than he did back when he thought Bush meant it, and so did the demonstrators threatening his local enforcers in Lebanon.