12.03.09

Obama's Fog of War

As Hillary and Gates fan out to explain what Obama really meant the other night, it's becoming clear that the "Great Communicator's" skills are breaking down.

It’s a strange paradox for a great wordsmith, but whenever Obama makes an important policy speech these days he leaves everyone totally confused. His first health-care press conference back in July triggered a season of raucous political Rorschach and left his hopeful followers utterly baffled about what they were being asked to support. Now White House envoys are being dispatched all over the globe to explain what the president really meant about the date when troops will or won’t be pulled out of Afghanistan. Hillary, you go to the Hill! Take Gates and Adm. Mullen with you. Holbrooke, off to Brussels! And you, Gen. Petraeus, you go on 360 and hit Anderson Cooper with jargony dog whistle caveats like “the pace of the drawdown is conditions-based.”

I have come to the conclusion that the real reason this gifted communicator has become so bad at communicating is that he doesn’t really believe a word that he is saying.

More Daily Beast contributors on Obama’s speech Does Obama create confusion on purpose? Is this his “process” based on his confession that he’s a screen onto which people project things? Is it a strategy so that whatever bill trickles out of Congress or however many soldiers linger in Afghanistan, he can claim that the outcome is what he meant it all along? (Clinton and Gates assured nervous senators on the Hill Thursday that the August 2011 deadline was both firm and flexible, and that this position was, in Gates’ words, “not contradictory” in the least.) Or is it that for all the administration’s vaunted mastery of multiplatform communication, Rahm and Gibbs and company are actually amateurs at crafting a clear political message and launching it on the dazed American public?

Or is it that there is so much subtext to every part of this message that the simple heads of the electorate are just not pointy enough to comprehend it?

I have come to the conclusion that the real reason this gifted communicator has become so bad at communicating is that he doesn’t really believe a word that he is saying. He couldn’t convey that health-care reform would be somehow cost-free because he knows it won’t be. And he can’t adequately convey either the imperatives or the military strategy of the war in Afghanistan because he doesn’t really believe in it either. He feels colonized by mistakes of the past. He feels trapped by the hand that has been dealt him.

Obama all but held his nose as he delivered those words—“bring this war to a successful conclusion”—and never once mentioned the word “win.” The only authentic moment at West Point was the history lesson he gave us at the start. As he spoke, you realized how long ago it was that we entered Afghanistan. How much blood has been shed since then. How futile it is to try to press the reset button and play this war game now as it would have been at the start, when we were hot on bin Laden’s trail in Tora Bora. For a moment, as Obama told us of the first attack on the Taliban and NATO’s invocation of Article 5, I felt I was being told some Nordic myth from ancient times: Four score years ago and ten, fiery planes set out for the prosperous, peace-loving climes of the United States of America! And then, there was war. There was much war, and it was covered in a great fog, and it lasted unto eternity.

Is it any wonder Obama would prefer to let us stay confused?

Tina Brown is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Daily Beast. She is the author of the 2007 New York Times bestseller The Diana Chronicles. Brown is the former editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Talk magazines and host of CNBC's Topic A with Tina Brown.