One of the tropes of modern politics is to establish oneself as a sensible centrist, a Third Way realist surrounded by naivety on both sides. And so Bill Clinton rejected, he said, the "brain dead politics" of the left and right and revived the term, Third Way, once used for non-aligned nations navigating between communism and capitalism. Obama's notion that one group favors the status quo while another wants a massive escalation in Afghanistan ,and a third wants a total withdrawal is a bit of a misnomer. I haven't heard anyone argue for continued troop levels. The argument has either been to add troops of various numbers or get out as soon as possible.
That said, the president delivered a thoughtful and sober speech outlining how we got into Afghanistan and how, he thinks, we can get out. The logic wasn't flawless. John McCain has asked why we should set an arbitrary date of July 2011 to begin withdrawal of troops. It's a good question.
But what was most compelling was the speech's tone. Its almost Kissingerian focus on national self-interest and realism. There weren't Wilsonian-Bushian flourishes about democracy. About the best he could say about Hamad Karzai was that his eleciton complied with the laws of Afghanistan. Women's rights? Bush laced his Iraq speeches with talk of Saddam's rape rooms. And the lifting of the burqa was one of the things that gave our mission to Afghanistan its nobility, even if it was born of retaliation. The open invitation to individual Taliban to defect was built on the idea, seen in Iraq, that you can buy off your enemies.
The logic is the same as health care: we must spend more now to save later. It's a difficult notion to sell but it carries with it the hope of something better. This wasn't Bush on an aircraft carrier or Obama in Iowa railing about Iraq or Hillary and Iraq. This was a community organizer turned war president. He had always argued that Afghanistan was the good war, the one that should have been the center or our attention. For years the Left in America echoed that line until Iraq started to ease, and now many of the Afghanistan-only shouters have become advocates of a full retreat. That's their right. But if Obama lost Mother Jones and The Nation and Salon tonight, he's hoping he can get them and everyone else back with something resembling victory on the ground, however incomplete. Let's hope he's right.