12.01.09

Obama's Eeyore Act

It was elegant, but would it kill him to endorse winning? Tunku Varadarajan on how Obama’s Afghan ambivalence left even the cadets depressed.

1. In the parlance of Olympic diving, President Obama's speech at West Point had a significant "degree of difficulty": How to impress upon a nation, weary and wary of war, the importance of winning in Afghanistan? It would have helped him immensely if he'd actually used the word "winning"—or any kindred words—somewhere, anywhere, in his speech. But he did not: "Successful conclusion" and "responsible transition" just do not hack it. One gets the sense that for this president, winning at something as unseemly as war is an aesthetic choke-in-the-throat. (That said, and to persevere with the diving metaphor, the speech was not a belly flop: It had that inevitable, clockwork, wind-up-and-whirr elegance that we've come to expect from Obama. There's no question: He's a theater jock.)

Can you imagine Churchill delivering a speech like this, one so full of a sense of the limitation of national possibilities?

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2. This correspondent has always found simplistic the dichotomous belief ascribed to Obama, that the war in Iraq is "bad" and the one in Afghanistan "good." In Obama's view, both wars are "bad," the difference being that Iraq's is diplomatically toxic, while Afghanistan's is not inherently so. The contrast, in effect, has never been one of moral value, but one of manageability. Eager to wash his hands of the diplomatically "unmanageable" war, he wasted no time in signing a treaty of withdrawal from Iraq, with a neat-o timetable. But to paraphrase Lady Bracknell: To pull out of one war may be regarded as a misfortune. To pull out of both looks like carelessness. And so, with the decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan—the "surge" that dare not speak its name—Obama has acquired uncontestable title to the war against the Taliban. If Obama has not won "Obama's War" by early 2011, he will not, in all likelihood, win a second term.

3. What has struck me most about Obama's Afghan enterprise—and his speech did not cause me to alter my view—is how obvious it is that he doesn't really want to do it. He wants to do health care. Obama has tried every delaying trick in the book—waiting for three months after Gen. McChrystal's request for more troops, having meeting after meeting after meeting, sending Gen. Jones to tell McChrystal not to ask for more troops, having his economic team say it will cost too much, framing the venture in terms of "exit strategies" rather than victory, etc. His ambivalence was on naked display tonight. Can you imagine Churchill delivering a speech like this, one so full of a sense of the limitation of national possibilities? No wonder Hillary—when the camera panned to her—looked like she needed a drink. No wonder the cadets all looked so depressed. Would you want Eeyore for commander in chief?

4. Finally, call me stupid, but I still don't get it: How can we possibly rely on Pakistan to help us defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan when the one force the Pakistani military establishment wishes fervently would once more run Afghanistan is…the Taliban. (And who are the Taliban? A movement, per President Obama, that is "ruthless, radical, and repressive." I suppose "Islamist" would have wrecked the alliteration.)

So why on earth would Pakistan help us…?

I'll leave that one to Richard Holbrooke.

Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU’s Stern Business School. (Follow him on Twitter here.)