That was such a strange speech. Deploring partisanship while serially trashing Bush at each new talking point. Sending more troops, but talking more about when they will come home rather than what they will do to the enemy. There was nothing much new in the speech, yet apparently it took the president months to decide whether even to give it.
Ostensibly the talk was to be on Afghanistan; instead, the second half mostly consisted of the usual hope-and-change platitudes.
Still, the president, to his credit, is trying to give the best picture of the Afghanistan war. Obama started well in his review of why George Bush removed the Taliban. But that disinterested narrative lasted about two minutes. Then came the typical Obama talking points that characterize his reset-button foreign policy and don’t offer a high degree of confidence that our commander in chief wants to defeat the enemy or believes that he can win the war:
1) Bush did it. Supposedly Bush neglected Afghanistan by going into Iraq, leaving Obama with this mess. (He does not mention why Iraq was largely won, much less why Afghanistan has been going backward the last ten months. If Bush was wrong in going into Iraq, exactly who was right in securing that country?)
2) Avoiding the V-word. Concluding the war seems to be the theme, as opposed to winning the war. “Breaking the momentum” of the Taliban, unfortunately, is not the same as crushing and humiliating the enemy. “Ending the war successfully” lacks the force of “defeating” the enemy and securing “victory.” Rather than talk for ten minutes in soaring platitudes, we need 20 seconds devoted to the notion that we will win, the Taliban will lose, and Afghanistan will be secured. His emphasis on civilian and political strategies is fine, but those strategies are first predicated on security. If you are surging, then, darn it, tell the American people that we will secure a military victory.
3) Multilateral phantoms. The allies, contrary to the president’s expectation, will not be escalating with us. They are afraid of another Suez, and think that this drawn-out decision does not inspire a great deal of confidence about Obama’s desire to defeat the enemy. Our allies fear that we are fickle, and that Afghanistan is like Guantanamo –sorta closed, sorta open. When the multilateral, post-Western Obama ignores allies and reaches out to enemies, it is hard to galvanize allies in a traditional alliance.
4) Deficit. How strange on this military occasion to hear worries about fiscal responsibilities from a president who has just given the country its largest annual budget deficits in history, and who will, according to his own schedule, add more to the national debt than all previous presidents. In a speech intended to win support for more troops, Obama worries more about the $30 billion cost of Afghanistan, even while he borrows $1.7 trillion for everything from AIG bailouts to GM takeovers to “cash for clunkers.”
5) Partisanship. How odd that this speech represents the first truly bipartisan outreach of his presidency and will get a fairer hearing from the Republicans, the town-hallers, the tea-partiers, and all those who have previously been demonized on every other initiative.
6) Stanley Baldwin, not Winston Churchill. Not a word about the horrific nature of al-Qaeda and their nightmarish Taliban sponsors, and why both of them are going to fail in the manner that the terrorists and their supporters lost in Iraq. Somewhere in this cerebral but flat speech there is the good news that we won’t quit Afghanistan — at least for 18 months — but otherwise it was the sort of talk a college provost gives to the faculty at the September back-to-school assembly.
I am happy that for another 18 months, Obama will fight the Taliban. But I think that, in times of war, when troops are headed into battle, Americans would rather hear “smoke ‘em out” and “dead or alive” than a Noble Peace Prize preamble.