Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Speech at West Point

Even as I lost all "hope" (pun intended) over this past year that President Obama would be the moderate, deficit-trimming postpartisan he had campaigned as -- and even seemed to be during the transition -- I always believed that if nothing else, he would do the right thing on Afghanistan. This was the "good" war, after all. The real War on Terror. The War of Necessity. The war that we had under-resourced for so many long years after taking our eye off the ball and invading Iraq, in a mistake that he would correct. And I knew all this because he had repeatedly told me so.

Watching President Obama tonight, as he announced at West Point his plan to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, I not only wanted to support him, I wanted to keep believing that despite all the other issues I have with him, at least he still believes everything he had been saying about Afghanistan. That at least on this one issue, if on no others, he could rise above politics and be an actual statesman.

It was a nice thought.

Instead of rising the occasion, instead of a president acting presidential and conveying his determination and resolve not just to America but to its allies and its enemies, we got a small speech, delivered at a photo op, and given by a man who at times actually seemed to be annoyed that he was even there.

And the speech itself was vintage Obama: "[W]hat’s at stake is the security of our Allies, and the common security of the world," but we're going "to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011," because this "new approach in Afghanistan is likely to cost us roughly 30 billion dollars for the military this year," and we really need "to bring down our deficit," even though "the common security of the world" is at stake. And did I mention that "I have prohibited torture and will close the prison at Guantanamo Bay"?

Like I said, vintage Obama.

You have to give him credit, though. Few politicians could stand there and say "by the time I took office the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan approached a trillion dollars" as a way to burnish his own fiscal responsibility bona fides after having himself signed off on roughly the same amount in a single bill!

Few politicians could give a major speech meant to rally both this nation and its allies to a plan for turning around a failing war yet avoid ever using the word victory. Because phrases like "responsible end" or "break the Taliban's momentum" are what really convey determination and resolve. Especially when "the common security of the world" is at stake. And besides, "successful conclusion" is so much less, well, militaristic...

Few politicians could announce a new, supposed counterinsurgency strategy without ever using the word counterinsurgency. Although the phrase "secure key population centers" does have more of a wonkier ring to it, I suppose, and President Obama just isn't the kind of guy who will let one word do the work of four. And I'm sure any Afghans who are not living in one of those "key population centers" will still happily sign on and help, because "our cause is just, our resolve unwavering." Or at least it will be until July of 2011.

Because "the common security of the world" is at stake.

And don't even get me started on his lament about how America has lost the unity it had right after September 11th. The president may "believe with every fiber of [his] being" we can summon that unity again, but I believe, with every fiber of my own being, that this summoning would be a whole lot easier if he would stop poking gratuitous sticks in the eyes of those who in good faith hold a different position on Iraq, or "enhanced interrogation," or Guantanamo Bay, or a host of other related and equally complicated issues. Especially when he's trying to build a common purpose in Afghanistan and the people who are most disposed to support this new surge of additional troops are, well, the very people whose eyes he just went around poking with gratuitous rhetorical sticks.

Then again, it also might be helpful in building support and "unity" for this strategy -- not just here in America but also among our allies abroad -- if the president had sounded, acted, and spoken like someone who actually believed in this strategy himself. Because he didn't. And you could see it on the faces of those cadets sitting in the audience. They knew the president was saying the words, but that his heart wasn't in them. And you just don't send in 30,000 additional troops unless you really, truly are resolved to see this fight through to the end, and to do whatever it takes to make sure that end is a certain word our president prefers not to use.

And that's my real dilemma. I support this strategy. I support sending those additional troops. I think this is the right thing to do, and the necessary thing to do. And I truly, honestly want to support President Obama in this.

But damn, did he ever make that hard to do with this speech.