Eyes on the prize: Obama made it very clear what the war was about: making sure that al Qaeda could "never again use this country to launch attacks against us." With the goal thus narrowly defined, he could credibly claim victory-in-progress. In fact he closely echoed a major speech he delivered in March 2008 laying out his foreign policy strategy, which centered on shifting focus from Iraq to Afghanistan. Then he said:
This is the area where the 9/11 attacks were planned. This is where Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants still hide. This is where extremism poses its greatest threat.Binaries, bookends and bye byes: Because the speech was about closure it was full of binary pairings: two wars wound down in (he would have us believe) similar fashion; ten years of combat to be followed by ten years of support/partnership; standing them up/us down. The opening words were the keynote: now the war ends and a new chapter begins. And the close was a bookend: “This time of war began in Afghanistan, and this is where it will end.”
Also in this binary vein, and in characteristic fashion, Obama positioned his policy as a golden mean between two wrong courses advocated by his critics: leaving now, and remaining without setting a timeline. The timeline he cast as the essential signal to Afghans that they have to take responsibility for their own security. And that message in turn was counterbalanced by another: that the just-signed agreement was the basis for an "enduring partnership"-- "as you stand up you will not stand alone."
So lovely a narrative: As always in such speeches, a war effort and alliance in fact fraught with conflict and failure sounded like a beautiful, steady progression from one phase of partnership to another with a lot of claims that rest on very questionable bases (to put it politely): the Taliban momentum broken, a steady transition to Afghans taking the lead in combat, firm commitments from the Afghans to combat corruption and ensure the rights of all.
The bottom line: But from at least the spring of 2008, Obama (with help from Gates) has been consistent about defining success down in both Iraq and Afghanistan. If neither place becomes a safe haven, and neither place implodes into full-scale civil war, that is enough. Obama stated in no uncertain terms: the U.S. sought no permanent bases in Iraq. If that sounds like a no-brainer today, recall McCain's talk of a 50-60 year troop presence in Iraq if not Afghanistan. Again, then, this takes us back to Obama's alpha and omega in this long war effort: no bases from which al Qaeda can attack the United States. That's been his message and stated goal all along, and that's a message to which I think Americans are well attuned at this point.
Lincoln again: When speaking of war, Obama cannot forebear echoing Lincoln. Tonight again, near the close he channeled the Second Inaugural, exhorting the nation to finish the work at hand and build a lasting peace.
Update: More on Obama at Bagram and the continuities with Obama '08 here.