Leslie Gelb on Afghanistan

Leslie Gelb makes some good points about Obama's speech. This one especially got me thinking.

Finally, at West Point, Mr. Obama talked to Americans as grownups. Wouldn't it be nice if some considered responding as adults--as Americans first and political nutjobs and self-serving pols second? Obama put Afghanistan into a larger and more meaningful context than the affairs of one country alone. "As president," he said, "I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests. And I must weigh all of the challenges that our nation faces. I do not have the luxury of committing to just one. Indeed, I am mindful of the words of President Eisenhower, who--in discussing our national security--said, 'Each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs.'" Washington is confronting six other actual and potential crises around the world, in addition to an economic crisis at home. Afghanistan ranks near the bottom of that list, and we shouldn't forget it.

Talking to Americans as grown-ups is something I reflexively advocate. Politicians and the press routinely underestimate the voters, I believe. Yet in my own comments on the speech I criticised Obama for underlining the limits of American commitment and resources, even as I acknowledged it was essential to bear these in mind in framing the strategy. (I didn't mention it in my own post, but my heart slightly sank when he used that quotation from Eisenhower.) So do I want Obama to carry the nation, or be honest about how finely balanced a decision this was? Difficult to do both.

It's a good question and to be honest I'm unsure of the answer. Mind you, I'm not sure Gelb has answered it all that well either. Obama certainly did not give the impression that Afghanistan is near the bottom of America's list of "actual and potential crises around the world". My guess is that he does not believe that, in which case he and Gelb disagree on the underlying analysis. If he does agree that Afghanistan ranks that low, as Gelb seems to think he does, then Obama was not being all that straight with his fellow citizens after all, was he?

And I think Gelb's criticism of Republicans and the media over what Obama said about exit is greatly overdone.

They're trying to create the impression that Obama has committed to withdrawing all American forces in a year or two. In fact, all he's said is that he would "begin" withdrawals in July 2011, and that the pace of further withdrawals would depend on "circumstances." That is not a timetable for withdrawals. It is merely the beginning of an unspecified process of withdrawing most U.S. forces from combat. It is the duty of TV anchors and journalists to point out that distortion every single time it is uttered. It is un-American and unpatriotic to repeat such lies.

Actually Republicans aren't "trying to create the impression that Obama has committed to withdrawing all American forces in a year or two". That's just wrong. They're questioning the wisdom of announcing a start date for disengagement, which they are right to. Also, Gelb might ask himself, how did Obama want what he said about 2011 to be interpreted? On Gelb's reading--"the beginning of an unspecified process"--it promised next to nothing. You could say it was almost literally meaningless. Obviously, that was not the message Obama aimed to send.

In fact, one wonders if the administration itself is clear about the significance of July 2011 [thanks RCP].

Perhaps they needed a while longer to talk it over. This is what happens when you rush into things.