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12.01.09

Ignoring Iraq's Lessons

The success of Obama’s Afghan plan rests heavily on the continued success of Bush’s Iraq surge. Elise Jordan on the debt the president owes his predecessor.

Tonight at the United States Military Academy at West Point, President Barack Obama’s buzzword was “responsible.” He made his troop increase decision “responsibly.” Afghans would be "responsible" for their country. And even though Obama’s speech was about Afghanistan, his message is unmistakably linked to Iraq—because anything else would be, well, irresponsible.

In the speech, Obama announced he would increase troop levels in Afghanistan, per General Stanley McCrystal’s September force-increase request. Obama went through the historical underpinnings of our involvement in Afghanistan, tracing from the September 11th attacks until today, stressing the unity of effort and international legitimacy surrounding the Taliban’s overthrow.

Obama quickly contrasted the good war in Afghanistan with the “bad” one in Iraq. We are bringing the war in Iraq to a “responsible end,” Obama stressed. And this is perhaps the biggest assumption of the Afghanistan strategy: that Iraq withdrawal continues on schedule and troops can shift to Afghanistan over the course of the next year.

More Daily Beast experts weigh in on Obama’s battle cry

Watch: 7 Keys to Obama’s Speech
Let's hope Iraq continues on schedule. Because Obama still lacks appreciation of why the surge there succeeded and how those lessons can drive his leadership on Afghanistan. Instead, Obama stressed his original opposition to the war in Iraq, perhaps to heighten his case that Afghanistan is worth it. But the inevitable comparison of his remarks tonight—the execution of strategy, and the public opinion he must rally—is with former President George W. Bush’s January 10th, 2007, announcement that he would send five additional brigades to Iraq, to be concentrated primarily in Baghdad.

Bush gave his speech in the White House library; the 20-minute talk was short by the standards of a major presidential address. His remarks were quickly and viscerally attacked by many critics who by January 2007 believed Iraq to be an irredeemable fool’s errand.

Obama could take a few lessons from his predecessor's experience.

(The lesson I take is that for now, we need to give Obama's strategy our full support and a chance and the space to succeed.)

Even if opponents hated Bush’s words, everyone—Americans, soldiers, Iraqis and the insurgents—knew that Bush meant what he said. He took responsibility, and he staked his presidency on the highly unpopular troop increase. He was a president who owned his words.

Tonight, Obama ordered additional troops to Afghanistan because Bush executed the steps outlined in his surge—and got it right. “Yet over time, we can expect to see Iraqi troops chasing down murderers, fewer brazen acts of terror, and growing trust and cooperation from Baghdad's residents,” Bush said in his surge speech. “The question is whether our new strategy will bring us closer to success. I believe that it will.”

Success is again within reach—a situation that would have been unimaginable had we failed in Iraq. Obama's challenges are starkly identical because the troop increase is irrelevant if he does not convince these respective constituencies that he is in the fight to win. Instead, Obama was vague and did not explain how his measures were conditions-based. He failed to reconcile a fundamental dilemma: If Afghanistan matters enough today to commit an additional 30,000 troops, what should be done if conditions do not improve by July 2011?

We could have used a reminder. In the months ahead, it is only going to get worse in Afghanistan in the near-term. When General David Petraeus implemented the surge, it was estimated that there were an additional 50 American casualties a month. And if you are a soldier in southern Afghanistan going on a run before a mission because you have seen too many of your friends go out to fight only to never run again, you need to believe Obama is in the fight to win.

Afghanistan matters—because too many troops have made the ultimate sacrifice, too many Afghans believe our promise of freedom, and because we cannot co-exist in a world with tyrants like the Taliban. I want to believe Obama when he sends more of our troops to fight what is a just war—and perhaps next time he rallies support for this multi-year effort, the president can remind us of those stakes.

Elise Jordan served as a director for communications in the National Security Council from 2008-2009. A former speechwriter for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, she lived and worked in Kabul for most of the last year.