Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Unfinished business: Obama's case for renewed effort in AfPak

A few structural notes on Obama's speech at West Point laying out his strategy for Afghanistan:

1) Obama made an interesting dual use of the U.S. experience in Iraq.  First, he used it to explain why "the situation has deteriorated in Afghanistan" --  because "Throughout this period [of Taliban resurgence] our troop levels in Afghanistan remained a fraction of what they were in Iraq."  At the same time, he used the template of what he characterized as a successful surge in Iraq to build out his vision of success in Afghanistan: 
Taken together, these additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces, and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011. Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground. We will continue to advise and assist Afghanistan’s Security Forces to ensure that they can succeed over the long haul. But it will be clear to the Afghan government – and, more importantly, to the Afghan people – that they will ultimately be responsible for their own country.
This analogy was Obama's chief device for arguing the claim that the swiftness of an envisioned drawdown of forces in Afghanistan will be almost directly proportional to the swiftness of the coming troop buildup.

2) Earlier today, Jeffrey Goldberg reminded us that from early in the Presidential campaign Obama has consistently identified Afghanistan and Pakistan as "the central front in the war on terror" from which vital resources were diverted to an unnecessary war in Iraq. Tonight, from the very beginning, Obama carefully rebuilt the historical case that shrinking the Taliban "cancer" is vital to curbing al Qaeda and preventing extremist takeover in Pakistan.  He began by harking back to the national and international unity that accompanied the initial U.S. action in Afghanistan, moved on to assert the live danger to the U.S. posed by al Qaeda's safe havens in Afghanistan and Pakistan, then spoke of an extremist "cancer" spreading from Afghanistan to Pakistan, and finally called for a restoration of the unity the country experienced in the immediate wake of 9/11. Early on, too, he reminded us that the authorization to use force in Afghanistan, approved unanimously in the Senate and with just one 'nay' vote in the House, "continues to this day."  The message was clear: we left this job unfinished; we have to finish it.

3) Obama never shrinks from engaging his opponents' arguments. This time, his review of those arguments came across not as political combat but more as a re-enactment of his exhaustive policy review.  He was retracing for us why he has come to believe that the strategy he has decided on is the only viable one.  In succession, he argued first that the fight against the Taliban is not "another Vietnam" - because "Unlike Vietnam, we are not facing a broad-based popular insurgency. And most importantly, unlike Vietnam, the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan, and remain a target for those same extremists who are plotting along its border."  Second, that maintaining status quo ante would lead to further deterioration "because we would never be able to generate the conditions needed to train Afghan Security Forces and give them the space to take over." Finally, he argued against a more open-ended commitment because it is unsustainable -- "we must rebuild our strength here at home. Our prosperity provides a foundation for our power." This is a "Passover" structure: ask the wise son's question, get the wise son's answer.

Tonally, to my admittedly biased ear Obama succeeded in getting across that 1) we had unity after 9/11 and need to regain that interrupted unity for the interrupted Afghan effort; 2) his long review of Afghan policy was a  strength, not a weakness (and did not delay deployment of a single additional soldier); and 3) he has rationally considered all options and come up with what he believes is the most sustainable strategy for neutralizing the national security threat posed by the alchemy of al Qaeda and the Taliban. (See the prior post for a discussion of how a layman can assess this strategy, and how I've tried to do so).

One final structural point that Obama did not make but that I see as implicit. His case for a surge is analogous to his case for the stimulus -- and for healthcare reform.  The multifront crises he faces all call for spending now to save later, going deeper into debt to put the economy and national security on a more sustainable footing.  Some regard Obama as too timid on all these fronts.  But without the prudence he radiates, how could any leader make the case in our fractious society, with the disingenuous and intellectually bankrupt Republican opposition, for the major commitments he has undertaken?

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