The best that can be said about President Obama’s West Point speech is that it was civil. Obama did not accuse opponents of the Afghan surge of appeasement; he did not imply that he has a proprietary relationship to 9/11 or a commitment to America’s security that his political opponents lack. The speech was not demagogic, and after George W. Bush, we can at least be thankful for that.
But it left me cold. Militarily, we are plunging deeper into Afghanistan, but emotionally, we are getting out. There was virtually nothing in the speech about our moral obligation to the Afghan people, a people to whom America promised much and has delivered scandalously little. As defined in the speech, Obama’s goals for Afghanistan are strikingly narrow. First, to “deny al Qaeda a safe haven”—a goal we could probably achieve with some Special Operations dudes and drone strikes from the air. Second, to “reverse the Taliban’s momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government”—basically, to insure that a bad status quo doesn’t get much worse. Third, to “strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s security forces and government so that they can take the lead responsibly for Afghanistan’s future.” It’s hard to know exactly what Obama means by “responsibly,” but if he is serious about starting to substantially withdraw U.S. troops in the summer of 2011, only a year after the surge reinforcements arrive, Afghanistan’s security forces and government won’t “responsibly” be able to do much more than they can do now.
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• Watch: 7 Key Moments of Obama’s Speech The big question is whether the 2011 deadline means anything. For the moment, it’s a good way to keep the left’s anti-war anger from boiling over. But if Obama is serious about it, then it just underscores how thin his goals for Afghanistan actually are, because a surge that ends almost as soon as it begins is unlikely to accomplish much of anything. In counterinsurgency wars, the race is not to the swift. If the plan is simply to kill a bunch of Taliban, build some wells, train a few Afghans and then turn tail, little of what we achieve will endure. It’s a bit like Richard Nixon’s policies in the latter stages of Vietnam. Tricky Dick bombed Hanoi ferociously, but largely to mask the fact that on the ground, America was getting the hell out. And as a result, the bombing had no effect on the ultimate course of the war. If Obama’s 2011 deadline is real, then the surge is, in large measure, fake.
If, on the other hand, the 2011 deadline is fake (and Obama did say he would “tak[e] into account conditions on the ground”—which gives him an out), then the speech becomes still stranger. If the deadline is fake and the surge is real, then we are making a long, costly, painful commitment to counterinsurgency—a commitment that, given the Taliban’s unpopularity on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border, could ultimately bring results. But Obama did not lay the groundwork for that commitment. He did not depict the Afghan war as a great and noble cause. There was some passion near the speech’s end—a call for America to uphold our tradition of global leadership, to support freedom and opportunity overseas, to see our security as intertwined with the security of others—but it was utterly disconnected from the Afghan war. As a result, it felt like an add-on, meant to artificially moisten another otherwise dry address.
That’s the problem, really. When it comes to the 9/11 wars, Obama clearly doesn’t think Americans have much more gas in the tank. He may be right, but if that’s true, then it's naïve to believe this last gasp of exertion will accomplish much. If, on the other hand, Obama is serious about bringing our war in Afghanistan to a “successful conclusion,” and not just a conclusion, he gave the wrong speech. Because Tuesday night’s speech was the opposite of rousing. Its subtext was: Just hang on; this will all be over soon.
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.