Politics & Policy

Mushy Speech, Solid Policy

Churchillian it was not. Obama’s long bout of leak-prone agonizing over his Afghanistan policy had a limp end in his strange West Point speech last night.

The speech was by turns defensive, graceless, intellectually mushy, and annoyingly self-righteous. Most of what he said will soon be forgotten, and deserves to be. What will endure is the policy, and on that — most important — Obama made basically the right call.

He gave McChrystal 30,000 troops and endorsed his counter-insurgency plan. In so doing, despite all his explicit and implicit shots at his predecessor, Obama echoed in the context of Afghanistan the case Bush made for the surge in Iraq: To deny al-Qaeda a safe haven, we will deploy more troops to secure population centers and give the government breathing room to foster its own security forces.

In areas of Afghanistan where we have troops in sufficient numbers, we’ve rousted the Taliban. But it’s pointless to do it in one town if a shortage of manpower keeps us from doing in the next town over, which the enemy can use as a base to build bombs and launch attacks. The additional combat brigades will fill the gaps in our effort and make it possible for us to fight to truly secure the strategic gem of the Pashtun south, Kandahar, which will be to Obama’s Afghan surge what Baghdad was to Bush’s Iraq surge.

The most problematic element of Obama’s speech was, of course, his pledge to start pulling out troops in 18 months. It’s foolish to give the enemy such an explicit timeline for the end of our maximum application of force. And it speaks to a worrisome impatience — and sensitivity to the political calendar — in an endeavor that requires time and an iron stomach.

Obama said any withdrawal will be conditions-based, although that’s contradictory. If the withdrawal is based on (unspecified) conditions, why arbitrarily pick a date on the calendar at all? At least the July 2011 pledge is less damaging than the so-called off-ramps discussed during the review that might have forestalled a full deployment of the additional troops.

Still, it’s obvious that Obama’s heart isn’t in the Afghan war and that he’s therefore incapable of communicating the depth of commitment appropriate when sending men and women into harm’s way. His base turned on the war as soon as it lost its usefulness as a campaign talking point, and Obama never had any intention of becoming a war president. He cares most about his domestic project of making us a Western European-style social democracy; there’s always another $1 trillion to spend, another massive government intervention to champion.

Whatever his inclinations, though, the evidence brought him back around to supporting the McChrystal strategy, which had been the Obama strategy until he suddenly lurched into his period of indecision. The premises of the so-called Biden plan, a limited counter-terrorism approach, didn’t withstand serious scrutiny. No, the war couldn’t be waged by drones and Special Forces, and Afghanistan couldn’t be allowed to slide back into chaos without endangering the region and our national security.

This left Obama no real choice but to make his awkward debut as a war president. He’s a reluctant warrior and a conflicted commander-in-chief, but for now he’s made the right decision.

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