President Obama’s speech on Afghanistan was disappointing. Yes, the policy is right: more troops, a counter-insurgency strategy, a stronger alliance with Pakistan. But the personal commitment of the president to pursue the war against the Taliban and al Qaeda until they are defeated was not there. Obama did not take ownership of the war. It’s still the war in Afghanistan, not Obama’s War.
Maybe the president wants it that way. It may keep him from experiencing the fate of Lyndon Johnson, whose presidency suffered — indeed was all but destroyed — by his failure in Vietnam. But it will also keep him from gaining the vindication that George Bush has earned for his decision to order a “surge” that allowed America to prevail in Iraq.
I had hoped Obama would declare that nothing will deter him, as commander-in-chief, from prevailing in Afghanistan. But it turns out a lot of things might deter him. He listed a few of them: the cost of the war, its length (if more than 18 months from January 2010), the failure of Afghans to step up to the task sufficiently. He hedged.
Americans and our allies were looking for more, I believe. To have rallied the country and the world, Obama needed to indicate he would lead a fight to win in Afghanistan, with the help of allies if possible, but with the armed forces of the U.S. alone if necessary. He didn’t say anything like that. He didn’t come close.
The result of the speech, I suspect, will be stagnant but still poor poll numbers here. He may have halted the downward drift of public support for the war for the time being. I doubt he persuaded any NATO countries to deploy more combat troops. Since he didn’t give a number — 10,000 has been used by his aides — he must not except very many to be offered.
I couldn’t be the only person who thought Obama once again both scapegoated and slighted George W. Bush. Early on in his administration, Obama recalled that he had agreed to a “longstanding request for more troops” in Afghanistan, implying that Bush had turned that request down. I don’t think that’s quite accurate.
And Obama praised the military for the success of the “surge” in Iraq without mentioning the person who — against the advice of nearly everyone in Washington — ordered that troop increase, Bush. Obama tacitly acknowledged the surge had worked, though he didn’t seem to remember that he’d insisted that it would worsen conditions in Iraq.
Despite the shortcomings of the speech, Obama made the right policy decision. He deserves credit for that. It won’t go down well with the antiwar, pacifist left wing of his party. That’s not only his base. It’s his political home. Up to now, the president hadn’t done anything to upset any of the constituency groups of the Democratic party. Now he has. Thank heavens for that.