No Wriggle Room for Obama

As Obama finalizes tonight's speech, a new report says he wants to conclude the Afghan mission around the end of his first term. Richard Wolffe details the president's West Point strategy.

12.01.09 6:37 AM ET

As Obama took the stage to deliver his speech, reports said he wanted to conclude the Afghan mission around the end of his first term. Richard Wolffe details the president's West Point strategy.

As he stopped on stage at a West Point auditorium on Tuesday night, President Obama knew he is hemmed in. Not just by the last eight years of mission drift in Afghanistan, nor by the declining legitimacy of the Karzai government in Kabul. But also by his own words.

White House officials concede that Obama has limited room for maneuver because of his past comments. For almost two years on the campaign trail, he called Afghanistan a war of necessity, in contrast to the war of choice that was Iraq. Officials acknowledge that it is hard to turn your back on a war of necessity, even if you never defined the necessity beyond the core leadership of al Qaeda.

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It is even harder to turn your back on a war that you described in March as vital to American and global security. “The safety of people around the world is at stake,” Obama said just eight months ago, flanked on stage by his national security team. “For the Afghan people, the return to Taliban rule would condemn their country to brutal governance, international isolation, a paralyzed economy, and the denial of basic human rights to the Afghan people, especially, women and girls. A return in force of al Qaeda terrorists who would accompany the core Taliban leadership would cast Afghanistan under the shadow of perpetual violence.”

White House officials concede that Obama has limited room for maneuver because of his past comments.

Peter Beinart: Stop Talking About Leaving The goal then, as now, was not to rule Afghanistan, but to secure the United States. That assessment, according to Obama’s aides, is one of the toughest to reframe, as the president has drafted and redrafted his address to the nation. “As president, my greatest responsibility is to protect the American people,” he said in March. “We are not in Afghanistan to control that country or to dictate its future. We are in Afghanistan to confront a common enemy that threatens the United States, our friends, and our allies and the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan who have suffered the most at the hands of violent extremists.”

In the short term, Obama hopes to nudge public attention away from his own previous strategy with a pile of specificity. In a detail-heavy address, Obama will also try to nudge the media away from its obsession with troop increases and towards troop decreases. White House officials say the president is likely to spend much time discussing the conditions surrounding when the troops will come home—supplementing remarks on when they will be deployed.

Moreover, Obama’s aides say the speech will focus intensively on the non-military factors that are central to the new strategy. In addition to the repeated warnings to President Karzai to root out corruption, Obama is likely to spell out the civilian investment needed to make the military investment successful.  

That focus on civilian aid suggests there are more elements of nation-building left in the new strategy than some early reports have suggested. Allied countries that have proven reluctant to provide additional troops will be pressed to contribute more money—both for reconstruction and to pay for security. That cash may well be channeled through officials that can bypass the Kabul government, either through the United Nations or a new post representing the NATO allies that are fighting the Taliban and hunting down al Qaeda.

The danger for the White House is that this second Afghan speech provides too much of an echo of the first, in March—as well as too much of an echo of the last president. President Bush delivered so many major addresses on the war in Iraq that even his own aides looked for alternative advocates to help rally public support, especially those in uniform. Obama, too, will employ the trappings of a war president—speaking against the backdrop of an audience in military uniform—but the setting is less familiar for him. Whether Obama can avoid Bush’s fate as a war president depends on far more than a couple of speeches about strategy. Bush never intended to have an open-ended commitment to war in Iraq, but found it impossible to spell out a timetable for the endgame beyond vague discussion of standing up the Iraqi army. The challenge for Obama is to spell out the benchmarks and conditions for withdrawal in a way that wins favor with a war-weary American public—without emboldening insurgents who are all too happy to sit and wait for a U.S. retreat.

Richard Wolffe is Daily Beast columnist and an award-winning journalist, and senior strategist at Public Strategies. He covered the entire length of Barack Obama's presidential campaign for Newsweek magazine. His book, Renegade: The Making of a President, was published by Crown in June.