Obama Afghanistan Speech: Worst of Both Worlds (Updated)
My first take on President Obama’s Afghanistan speech, “Obama Announces Afghan Surge and Exit Strategy” is up at New Atlanticist. I plan at least two more essays later in the day dissecting international reaction and other aspects. The lede:
After months of careful consideration, President Obama announced his newest Afghanistan policy last night. He will send an additional 30,000 troops in rapid fashion — giving General McChrystal most of what he asked for — but also announced an exit timetable that makes a successful counterinsurgency impossible.
Indeed, “The president has, after a few months of seeming to back a counterinsurgency approach to AfPak, narrowed his focus back to the counterterrorism policy he announced toward the beginning of his term.”
What most struck me about the speech is the degree to which what was ostensibly a national security speech was framed in domestic policy terms. Obama said:
We have been at war now for eight years, at enormous cost in lives and resources. Years of debate over Iraq and terrorism have left our unity on national security issues in tatters and created a highly polarized and partisan backdrop for this effort. And having just experienced the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the American people are understandably focused on rebuilding our economy and putting people to work here at home.
But, this is almost purely a domestic calculus. He’s right, of course, that the strain of the deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan have constrained our ability to deploy forces elsewhere and threatens to undermine the readiness of our military. Still, the exit strategy is decidedly not based on “success” — however it might be defined — in Afghanistan.
Instead, the last twenty-five paragraphs of the speech are essentially a domestic policy address, the theme of which was “That’s why our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open- ended: because the nation that I’m most interested in building is our own.” That’s a welcome message to a domestic audience grown weary of war. But it’s not one likely to inspire much confidence in Afghans being asked to bet their lives on our strategy.
Ultimately, the president tries to have it both ways, insisting that beating al Qaeda and the Taliban are vital, providing the troops his commanding general says is necessary to that objective, and yet not giving him the time to get the job done. While not the “middle ground” solution his critics were predicting weeks ago, it’s in many ways a worse split.
My own sense is that we’re unlikely to achieve much more in Afghanistan than we have already. So a plan to wind down our operation makes perfect sense — but sending 30,000 more troops into harm’s way does not. Alternatively, Obama could have offered a full-throated support for the mission, which he has now defined more narrowly. Instead, we have gotten the worst of both worlds.
UPDATE (Dave Schuler)
While the president did not take the steps I would have preferred, namely, announcing a significantly narrower objective in Afghanistan, I didn’t react quite as negatively as James did. I thought that the character of the speech stemmed from the president’s desire to appease as many domestic political factions as possible while continuing to pursue the course he’d already set out on.
There was one thing that did strike me as odd and the president’s political opponents were quick to pick up on it as well and that was the curious implied definition of national interest. I’m unclear as to how one can reconcile the president’s statement that what we were doing in Afghanistan was a vital national interest with his pledge to withdraw from Afghanistan beginning in 18 months. It’s either a vital national interest or it is not.
The statements certainly lend themselves to the interpretation that the president has conflated the national interest with his own political interests. 2011 seems arbitrary from a strategic standpoint but it is the year before the president must run for re-election. I hope that some effort is put into damage control for that statement by the president or his proxies.