President Barack Obama’s speech at West Point last night hit all the right notes in articulating a new policy, and new forces, for Afghanistan. No one can doubt that the President believes his strategy is correct on the merits because, politically, there is something for everyone to hate.
Liberals had launched a pre-emptive attack on the new policy. Congressman Dennis Kucinich has been doing a round of interviews bemoaning the troop increases the President’s plan calls for and thinks we should just up and leave. Of course, it is not clear what effect such a premature departure would have on the resurgent Taliban, but it is quite clear that effect would not be in America’s interest.
Conservatives were upset that the President set deadlines for the Afghan government to get its act together and arm its own military so that they, not we, will be able to control the Taliban, or at least isolate them sufficiently that they are not threat to anyone but themselves. As well, conservatives were upset that the President did not call for "victory" as George W. Bush repeatedly did but they neglect the fact that Bush gave "victory" a bad name. Remember the "Mission Accomplished" banner? In Afghanistan, "victory" in the WWII-style is not an available option. There are remote parts of Afghanistan that are likely to be governed by war lords or Taliban one hundred years from now.
All sides should agree, however, that Obama gets high marks for helping to explain to the American people how the situation in Afghanistan is tied in with the situation in Pakistan. And, he gets high marks for explaining to the Afghan people that America has no intention of staying in their country or forcing them to adopt Western ways.
The best part of the speech was the setting. The President went to face those who will actually be fighting this war. He spoke movingly of the sacrifices the U.S. military and their families have made without exploiting that suffering for political gain. It was evident that the burden of office which Obama usually wears lightly has gotten to him in the forging of this new policy, that his visits to wounded military personnel and meeting the families of those who have died made him not just sober but solemn in his demeanor last night. That solemnity was appropriate and was such a welcome break from the swashbuckling, cowboy demeanor of his predecessor.
Strangely, however, Obama’s greatest failing last night was his unwillingness to admit that his current policy for Afghanistan has more in common with President Bush’s "surge" in Iraq than he cares to admit. After all, Sen. Obama opposed the surge when Bush proposed it. I understand that politicians are loath to admit a mistake, but the President’s speech would have benefited from such candor. The highly visible presence of General David Patraeus and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates at last night’s speech highlighted the continuity in outlook and policy. While I understand the desire to turn most issues into a clean break from the Bush years, I suspect that down the road the President would benefit from the perception of continuity among military officials and military decision-making.
The President set the right tone, gave a fine explanation for the decisions he has made, and outlined the goals of the policy he intends to pursue. Now, he just has to pray that it works. Having explained why success in Afghanistan is a vital national interest, and at the same time said we intend to be finished in a little more than eighteen months, the President did not say what happens if the situation in Afghanistan, and in Pakistan, has not improved by then.