President Obama appeared before network TV cameras at the White House Wednesday night to answer one of the biggest questions of his presidency: how many troops will come home from Afghanistan beginning next month, and how fast will they leave?
Since Obama announced his "surge" of 30,000 troops to that country in December of 2009 -- a move the U.S. public supported -- the pace of Afghan withdrawal, and the public's acceptance of whatever plan he chooses, has been seen as a major factor in Obama's long-term prospects for public confidence in his presidency and his hopes for reelection in 2012. With security gains in Afghanistan described to Congress this spring by Gen. David Petraeus as "fragile and reversible," and with a majority of Americans now favoring immediate withdrawal for the first time, President Obama explained Wednesday night that 10,000 troops will return this year, with 30,000 returning by next year.
Now that he's made this announcement, here are eight quick takeaways from his brief speech to the nation:
- The president's delivery was good -- crisp, decisive-sounding, not much hesitation or deliberation in his voice. The speech was well rehearsed, which was how Obama probably needed to sound.
- But we saw, on Wednesday night, a president clearly pulled in different directions. Obama's speech was aimed at a domestic audience mostly opposed to the war. We heard promises that the war, really, is going to end. "Afghans are fighting and dying for their country," Obama told us, speaking to those who may think Americans shouldn't be fighting and dying for Afghanistan. Most of the explanations for why we're there, given by Obama tonight, involved the attacks of 9/11. It was, in many ways, an anti-war speech, not justifying a continued, nation-building presence, but justifying Obama's own foreign policy -- advertising a minor drawdown, sometimes echoing the buzzwords of opposition to president George W. Bush's wars. At the same time, the president advertised progress.
- The 10,000 number may sound big, but the 33,000 number is more significant. Obama announced that "we will bring home a total of 33,000 troops by next summer, fully recovering the surge I announced at West Point. After this initial reduction, our troops will continue coming home at a steady pace as Afghan Security forces move into the lead. Our mission will change from combat to support. By 2014, this process of transition will be complete, and the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security." By National Journal's count, there are 99,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan right now. Obama's announcement may not be enough to satisfy a public that has soured on the war, a majority of which now favors immediate removal of U.S. troops.
- The speech wasn't all about the war in Afghanistan, being fought primarily against the Taliban. Almost as much of it seemed to be devoted to al Qaeda, the terrorist group that instigated the U.S. invasion, but not the dominant force against which U.S. and NATO troops are now fighting. Obama talked about Libya and his broader foreign policy in the Muslim world, saying "we must rally international action, which we are doing in Libya, where we do not have a single soldier on the ground" -- a reprise of his favored approach of multilateralism.
- Some notable phrases from the speech seemed to be "We are starting this drawdown from a position of strength," "we must be as pragmatic as we are passionate; as strategic as we are resolute," and "these long wars will come to a responsible end."
- It's been a known fact, but not one that the administration has always seemed eager to talk about, that America's future in Afghanistan will involve talking to Taliban groups and incorporating them into the U.S./NATO-established Afghan political system. Obama talked about those talks Wednesday night: "We do know that peace cannot come to a land that has known so much war without a political settlement. So as we strengthen the Afghan government and Security Forces, America will join initiatives that reconcile the Afghan people, including the Taliban. Our position on these talks is clear: they must be led by the Afghan government, and those who want to be a part of a peaceful Afghanistan must break from al Qaeda, abandon violence, and abide by the Afghan Constitution. But, in part because of our military effort, we have reason to believe that progress can be made."
- The spectacle of this speech, in many ways, centered on Obama's identity as an anti-Iraq-war politician, and his efforts to bridge the gap between the anti-Iraq-war sentiments to which he spoke in 2008 and his need to steward a difficult effort in Afghanistan today. When Obama ran, he ran on the idea that Iraq was not only a misguided war, but that it had been launched at the expense of the war in Afghanistan, which was deteriorating by the time he took to the campaign trail to assail president Bush in his stump speeches. In Wednesday's speech, Obama managed to both demonize the war in Iraq and hit anti-war buzzwords (for instance, "A second war was launched in Iraq, and we spent enormous blood and treasure to support a new government there") while at the same time plotting a course that sounded similar to America's history in Iraq. He talked about "political settlement" -- a Democratic buzzword on Iraq from 2006. He said, "America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home" -- another Democratic talking point used against Bush in 2006, to highlight the expense of the war Bush had undertaken and how those funds could otherwise be used. Yet the notion of leaving Afghanistan in 2014, with the approval of the Afghans, sounded a lot like the situation Bush entered into with Iraq's government, where a "Status of Forces Agreement" meant that for withdrawal to happen, like launching a nuke from a submarine, both nations had to turn their keys. Even as Obama sought to distance himself from America's other recent unpopular war, a few broad similarities are inescapable.
- Richard Nixon used the phrase "peace with honor" when talking about Vietnam. In Obama's speech, we could see a desire for the same type of thing: a graceful exit, palatable or at least acceptable to the American people, but without letting terrible consequences happen in Afghanistan. Hearing Obama re-hash the reasons for invading Afghanistan, sound anti-Iraq-war notes, and tie it all to his actions in Libya, one couldn't help but notice that the president's political and military situations are both tricky.