Tuesday, December 1, 2009

President Obama's War

10 months into his Presidency, the war in Afghanistan is President Barack Obama's war. Tonight marked a crucial inflection point in our strategy and in how future history books will be written about the long, protracted war in Afghanistan.

On an emotional note first, I found the speech somewhat flat. Recalling the passion that I felt after September 11th to get the evil that killed thousands of innocent Americans for no reason other than that they were in the wrong building on the wrong day, I thought the President missed an opportunity to provide emotional clarity for why we must be in Afghanistan. He mentioned this history, but his words failed to stir me and he has certainly shown a capability to stir and inspire in the past. He felt almost hurried in his delivery and there were a couple of points where he appeared to audibly trip over his words, perhaps a testament to the late finalization of the speech (word was, he continued to work on it in the hour leading up to its delivery.)

On the content, I feel better about the speech, although far from great. President Obama highlighted the risks of the Taliban and an Al Queda unconstrained. He made clear our goals -- dismantle the power base of these two organizations and build a sustainable security infrastructure in Afghanistan. He made clear that more troops were needed to accomplish this mission. He set a clear timeline for withdrawal.

But the speech was short on the specifics of the strategy. I don't leave hearing the speech with a sense of clarity around HOW these additional troops would help us clear these hurdles. The timeline seemed arbitrary -- why draw down after 18 months? Why not 12 months or 24? Why set a rigid timeline? Shouldn't this all be really clear after the length of his deliberations? Doesn't this sound a bit too much like the vaguely aspirational speeches that Bush used to give about Iraq? What about Pakistan? Can Karzai actually govern outside of Kabul?

The speech was also intensely political at times. There were the thinly veiled swipes at Bush Administration policy, which seem unnecessary at this stage of the game. There was also his reference to the 98-0 vote in the Senate and the 420-1 vote in the House to authorize the war. The message? Fellow Democrats -- we got in this together and we are still in this together.

I certainly believe that our prospects for success in dismantling terrorist networks in Afghanistan and establishing a stable (if only marginally Democratic) government are improved with the higher troop levels. Let's face it -- this is the first time we've really not given the military a shot to win this thing resource-wise before. But victory is still far from assured. And the President will have to have the fortitude to withstand public opinion (increasingly opposed to the war), the scrutiny of his own party (he will find few defenders in the Democratic caucus, except amongst the Joe Lieberman's and Jim Webb's of the world) and the emotional toll of bodies continuing to come back in coffins. I certainly respect him for listening to the moderate voices in his cabinet. I just hope for all of our sakes that we have the strategy to pull this off.

One thing is clear...this is the first issue on which President Obama now completely owns the success or failure. The economy? That was wrecked before he got here. Iraq? He was opposed to getting in and now is getting us out. Health care? We don't have a bill and even if we get one, it won't take effect in large measure until 2013 or 2014.

But this one he owns. If we are in a quagmire at this time next year, it belongs to the President. If Afghanistan is stable, it is to his credit.

You could argue that this was President Obama's first true Presidential moment -- Harry Truman's buck stopped with him tonight.

I pray he has this one right.

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