Obama's Afghanistan speech

Obama's speech on Afghanistan failed to measure up. Under pressure on other issues--Jeremiah Wright and health care come to mind--he has risen to the challenge and given powerful, moving addresses that touched people and retrieved the situation. Going into his much anticipated address at West Point on Tuesday, he was again under pressure. His commanders had told him they needed more men or else the US mission would fail, and (improperly) had put that assessment before the public. But popular support for the war has slumped. Quite a dilemma. Obama tried to have it both ways: he gave the generals another 30,000 soldiers, almost as many as they had asked for, but told the country (and anybody else who might have been listening) that disengagement would begin in just 18 months.

At its center, in other words, the speech contradicted itself. You cannot argue, as he tried to, that (a) this is a war America must win to safeguard its own security, and (b) whether the US is winning or not, the troops will start to come home in 2011. If they can start to come home in 18 months regardless, why not start to bring them home now?

That was not the only contradiction. We are against "nation building" (again). But as well as creating the country's own security forces out of next to nothing, we want a civilian surge to build capacity and foster development. Run that by me once more.

Things could certainly change for the better in 18 months. I wouldn't bet on it--but it's possible. This is a big extra commitment. Another 30,000 soldiers, plus whatever can be prised out of feckless NATO allies, will make a big difference.

On balance I think he is right to commit the extra forces. And I'm not saying it's wrong to aim to succeed, according to some definition we could argue about, within 18 months, and hope to start withdrawing at that stage. By the way, it's also not wrong to be concerned about the costs of escalation, as Obama said he was. Explaining why he had decided against an open-ended commitment, he said the cost would not be "reasonable". (Strange word to choose, but let that pass.) Ideally he would have said why it would not be reasonable, though that would have been tricky after his account of what the US had at stake in all this.

But it sure makes no sense to announce this accelerated schedule to the enemy, or mention that a weakened United States cannot afford to fight for long. In a war, those are not good messages to send, either to the enemy or your own people.

You might argue that since the electorate is now so skeptical, he had to offer them reassurance regardless, then let the Taliban draw their own conclusions. I think the speech failed on that score too, because the contradiction made what he said so unpersuasive. Mostly, I think the president will have confused people. We'll see what the polls say, but I'll be surprised if he gets the kind of bounce we saw in September, when he addressed the nation on health care.

He is being criticized for the lack of detail in the speech. That I think is wrong. This was not the time to lay out his detailed strategy--though one certainly hopes there is one, after all these months of agonizing, and he gave no sign of it.

People may have expected too much from the speech because the wait had pumped up expectations--which he failed to satisfy, either with a compelling argument, or even with much sign that the protracted analysis had told him anything he didn't already know. The reference to "no option before me" to send more troops before next year, meaning that the months of talking had caused no delay, was a mistake. It sounded passive. No option before him? He's the president. If he had wanted such an option, why did he not insist?

In fact I thought the whole speech was surprisingly unconfident. To be sure, the test of the strategy is not this speech but what happens on the ground. Maybe they have it right. As the details emerge, it will be easier to see. But tonight I felt Obama failed to express the clarity and resolve a commander in chief needs to at such a time. He did not rally the country behind this policy.