In going to Afghanistan and addressing the nation about the state of the decade-long war, President Obama did exactly what Republicans long have been urging him to do. But in doing so on the anniversary of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, he sure didn't do it the way they wanted him to — certainly not if it reminded voters of the single greatest accomplishment of his presidency.
Welcome to the presidential campaign, 189 days before Election Day, when every action by an incumbent president is scrubbed for political motive. So it is hard to take the White House explanation of the timing completely at face value. Aides insist that high-level review of U.S. negotiations with Afghanistan on the Security Partnership Agreement had just concluded after 20 months of wrangling and it had to be signed before NATO leaders gather in Chicago on May 20. Closer to the mark is a senior administration official's statement that both Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai thought it was important to sign the SPA on Afghan soil and that the U.S. president wanted to be with American troops to mark the one-year anniversary of the killing of the 9/11 mastermind.
(FULL TEXT: Obama's Speech in Kabul)
Indeed, before he addressed the nation, the president carried a message of gratitude and praise to a hangar at Bagram Air Base packed with about 3,200 of those troops. If Obama was using bin Laden's death as a "political football," as Republicans have charged, the troops didn't seem to mind. "Slowly and systematically, we have been able to decimate the ranks of al-Qaida. And a year ago we were able to finally bring Osama bin Laden to justice," said the president, triggering cheers, applause, and whoops of "Hooah!"
Later, in the predawn speech broadcast back to the United States, he made another mention of what happened on this date one year ago. It was a brief statement of fact as he noted, "One year ago, from a base here in Afghanistan, our troops launched the operation that killed Osama bin Laden." He added, "The goal that I set — to defeat al-Qaida, and deny it a chance to rebuild — is within reach."
(PICTURES: Obama's Unannounced Visit)
Almost audible at that mention was the gritting of teeth of Republicans back home who want to diminish Obama's role in the decision that launched the raid that nailed bin Laden. Even before that mention, Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., on Tuesday criticized the trip, Obama's third to the war zone as president, as "campaign related, " and an "attempt to shore up his national security credentials."
But a White House aide briefing reporters from Afghanistan brushed aside such criticisms, insisting, "It was always the president's intention to spend this anniversary with our troops because, of course, it was an extraordinary, capable group of U.S. service members who carried out that operation." He added, "What better place to spend time with the troops than with those here in Afghanistan who are in harm's way?"
And it is tough for Republicans to be too critical. For more than a year, they have been urging him to talk more about Afghanistan, to better educate war-weary Americans about the mission there. Count Inhofe in that group. He complained that the president has "refused to articulate the value and importance of the work our troops are doing there." Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, has also accused Obama of not talking about Afghanistan enough, particularly after a flashy Obama campaign video released in March only mentioned the war in Iraq, omitting Afghanistan from the script.
(PICTURES: One Year Later in Abbottabad)
One of the leading critics has been House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., who grudgingly praised Obama for visiting the troops and addressing the nation. "After nearly a year of not speaking about the war and 17 months of not visiting the war zone," he said in a statement, "this visit and speech is long overdue." He suggested the speech was made only because of pressure from Congress and newspapers, adding, "I sincerely hope that it won't be another year before we hear from our president on this important topic."
Whatever the goals of this speech, it seems pretty clear that it's at least partially meant to push back on that line of attack. At the least, it put his Republican critics on the defensive. Troops under fire, regardless of their personal politics, always appreciate a commander in chief who comes into theater to recognize their sacrifice and thank them for their service. And Obama's off-the-cuff, nine-minute remarks in the hangar were pretty tough for anyone to fault. They also showed that the president has learned from the mistakes made by one of his predecessors who stumbled when trying to signal the end of another war. It did not escape notice that this was also the anniversary of President Bush's infamous trip to an aircraft carrier off the coast of San Diego in 2003.
(VIDEO: Obama: Goal I Set Within Reach)
It was there, clad in a flight suit and standing beneath a banner proclaiming "Mission Accomplished," that Bush declared the end of major combat in Iraq. He was about six years and thousands of casualties premature. For all presidents to come, it served as a cautionary tale about presidential pronouncements on war. Obama, in his remarks to the troops and his address to the nation, seems to have learned that lesson well. Even amid his congratulations to the troops and his praise for the agreement he had signed with Karzai, the president delivered a sobering message:
"I want you to understand, I know it's still tough. I know the battle's not yet over. Some of your buddies are going to get injured and some of your buddies may get killed. And there's going to be heartbreak and pain and difficulty ahead. But there's a light on the horizon because of the sacrifices you've made."
It is not a message — and his address to the nation was not a speech — designed to draw thousands of Americans to the White House gates or to Times Square to kiss strangers, sound horns, and sing in jubilation. That was how Americans reacted to the news he delivered one year earlier. The message on this May 1 was more muted in its celebration and more sober in its impact. But it was one a commander in chief should deliver and one he should have delivered earlier. But even in an election year and even amid criticism of the timing, it was something he owed to voters who wanted to know more about his timeline and his strategy to lift what he called "the dark cloud of war."
Yochi Dreazen contributed contributed to this article
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.