The Media React to President Obama’s Afghanistan Speech
Egads. I’m in agreement with Tom Friedman:
Let me start with the bottom line and then tell you how I got there: I can’t agree with President Obama’s decision to escalate in Afghanistan. I’d prefer a minimalist approach, working with tribal leaders the way we did to overthrow the Taliban regime in the first place. Given our need for nation-building at home right now, I am ready to live with a little less security and a little-less-perfect Afghanistan.
I’m in somewhat less agreement with the route by which he reaches this conclusion—my reasoning is closer to James’s—but I think that’s the right conclusion. Have none of President Obama’s advisors told him that, unlike in Iraq, Afghanistan’s population is predominantly rural and the country cannot be secured by securing a few large cities?
Otherwise where they stand largely depends on where they sit. The editors of the New York Times agree both with President Obama’s decision to commit additional troops to Afghanistan:
In his speech Tuesday night, President Obama showed considerable political courage by addressing that pessimism and despair head-on. He explained why the United States cannot walk away from the war and outlined an ambitious and high-risk strategy for driving back the Taliban and bolstering the Afghan government so American troops can eventually go home.
and to President Obama’s commitment to a date certain for withdrawal whether that’s a commitment that he can make good on or not:
We are eager to see American troops come home. We don’t know whether Mr. Obama will be able to meet his July 2011 deadline to start drawing down forces.
For that to happen, there will have to be a lot more success at training Afghan forces and improving the government’s effectiveness.
Still, setting a deadline — so long as it is not set in stone — is a sound idea. Mr. Karzai and his aides need to know that America’s commitment is not open-ended. Mr. Obama’s generals and diplomats also need to know that their work will be closely monitored and reviewed.
The editors of the Washington Post are of a similar mind:
Mr. Obama’s troop decision is both correct and courageous: correct because it is the only way to prevent a defeat that would endanger this country and its vital interests; and courageous because he is embarking on a difficult and costly mission that is opposed by a large part of his own party. Importantly, the president did not set an end date or a timetable for the mission beyond July 2011; the pace of extracting U.S. forces will depend on developments on the ground.
while columnist David Ignatius is even more enthusiastic:
Obama has made the right decision: The only viable “exit strategy” from Afghanistan is one that starts with a bang — by adding 30,000 more U.S. troops to secure the major population centers, so that control can be transferred to the Afghan army and police. This transfer process, starting in July 2011, is the heart of his strategy.
Military commanders appear comfortable with Obama’s decision, although they wish it hadn’t taken so long. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is said to be especially pleased that Obama decided to rush the additional troops to Afghanistan in just six months, sooner than Gen. Stanley McChrystal had requested. The speedy deployment “gets McChrystal the most U.S. force in the fight as fast as possible and enough to help him gain the initiative,” said one senior military officer.
But politically, it’s an Afghanistan strategy with something to make everyone unhappy: Democrats will be angry that the president is escalating a costly war at a time when the struggling economy should be his top priority. Republicans will protest that by setting a short, 18-month deadline to begin withdrawing those forces, he’s signaling to the Taliban that they can win if they just are patient.
That enthusiasm isn’t matched by the editors of the Wall Street Journal who are more skeptical:
We support Mr. Obama’s decision, and this national effort, notwithstanding our concerns about the determination of the President and his party to see it through. Now that he’s committed, so is the country, and one of our abiding principles is that nations should never start (much less escalate) wars they don’t intend to win.
Above all, as a war President, Mr. Obama will have to spend more of his own political capital persuading the American public that the Afghan campaign is worth the price. One speech at storied West Point isn’t enough. The President needs his own political surge.
as are the editors of the LA Times:
Even as President Obama announced an escalation of the war in Afghanistan, he focused on plans for getting out. At the same time that he ordered an additional 30,000 U.S. soldiers and Marines to the front, he said he would start bringing them home in July 2011. And while assuring neighboring Pakistan of America’s long-term commitment to South Asia, he also sought to reassure Americans that there are limits to U.S. military involvement in the region.
We appreciate the president’s rhetorical prowess. Tuesday’s speech was clear and cogent. Yet we can’t help but wonder if he will be able to keep so many seemingly contradictory promises made to so many different audiences. We understand that Obama inherited a neglected war and was presented with an array of bad choices, and we certainly hope he is making the right decision to double down in Afghanistan. But frankly, we have grave misgivings about the cost and likelihood of success.
If this op-ed in Der Spiegel is any gauge President Obama’s move won’t be met by similar gestures from our NATO allies:
Never before has a speech by President Barack Obama felt as false as his Tuesday address announcing America’s new strategy for Afghanistan. It seemed like a campaign speech combined with Bush rhetoric — and left both dreamers and realists feeling distraught.
One can hardly blame the West Point leadership. The academy commanders did their best to ensure that Commander-in-Chief Barack Obama’s speech would be well-received.
Just minutes before the president took the stage inside Eisenhower Hall, the gathered cadets were asked to respond “enthusiastically” to the speech. But it didn’t help: The soldiers’ reception was cool.
One didn’t have to be a cadet on Tuesday to feel a bit of nausea upon hearing Obama’s speech. It was the least truthful address that he has ever held. He spoke of responsibility, but almost every sentence smelled of party tactics. He demanded sacrifice, but he was unable to say what it was for exactly.
An additional 30,000 US soldiers are to march into Afghanistan — and then they will march right back out again. America is going to war — and from there it will continue ahead to peace. It was the speech of a Nobel War Prize laureate.
For each troop movement, Obama had a number to match. US strength in Afghanistan will be tripled relative to the Bush years, a fact that is sure to impress hawks in America. But just 18 months later, just in time for Obama’s re-election campaign, the horror of war is to end and the draw down will begin. The doves of peace will be let free.
The reactions of columnists in The Guardian are similar. Simon Jenkins:
Barack Obama’s announcement of an Afghan “surge” is his frantic bid to rescue what promises to be a stumbling re-election campaign that must start in 2011. It oozes with his desperation not to be in Afghanistan. The question is how best to disengage. As in Vietnam and as the Russians found, withdrawal tends to be possible here in Afghanistan only after the generals on the ground have been given a last chance to claim victory.
These are important goals. The political establishment of the US is quite focused on them. The American people, however, are not. And so Obama, trying to placate both, has a very narrow needle to thread: he must show seriousness of commitment, but he must also show that commitment isn’t forever.
That’s why he placed emphasis on the speed with which the new troops would be deployed, the need for a greater Nato commitment and — most of all — the timetable for stopping the whole business. “These additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces, and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011. Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground,” he said, before concluding: “But it will be clear to the Afghan government — and, more importantly, to the Afghan people — that they will ultimately be responsible for their own country.”
It’s not exactly “blood, toil, tears and sweat” against a “monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime”. But the words matter less now than the actions. America, the president said, is “passing through a time of great trial”. And so is he.
I haven’t fully digested the commentary in Pravda but a first glance suggests that the Russians’ reaction is pretty cynical.
Photo credit: Reuters Pictures.