Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Obama at Bagram, cont.: a caveat for Samuel Popkin

For a take on Obama's speech last night from Afghanistan, James Fallows turned to political scientist Samuel Popkin, whose insight into the difference between running as a challenger and as an incumbent he had aired in a prior post. Popkin emphasized the difference between challenging in poetry and running on your prose record:
Obama's two visits to Afghanistan nicely illustrate the difference  between a challenger and an incumbent. 

The highlight of Senator Obama's 2008 visit to Afghanistan was the three-point shot he hit and the high fives he got from the troops.  Now, President Obama will sign a treaty, and note the anniversary of the shot heard round the world that took out Bin Laden.
 In keeping with that difference, he noted the caustic, limited-liability tenor of Obama's statement of commitment to the Afghan government:
Note that there were two references [in Obama's speech, which I have not yet heard -- JF] to strengthening democratic institutions and no mention of democracy or liberty.   And a very clear emphasis, like an NPR pledge week. on matching grants: "as you stand up you will not stand alone."  I took that to imply if you don't stand up you will be on your own.
Fallows glosses: " If you think the Osama-killing, drone-strike-ordering, bank-rescuing, compromise-accepting Barack Obama of 2012 is different from the "Change We Can Believe In" / dreamy Hope-poster figure of 2008, you're right: that's how it always is, according to Popkin."

Popkin's core incumbent/challenger contrast is the fruit of decades of research and makes intuitive sense. At the same time, as someone who's been tracking Obama's rhetoric for five years,  I'm attuned to continuity over that span,  and there's a lot of that in this speech too.  There have always been two Obamas, ultrapragmatist and long-view promiser of deep change, and the difference in the '08 and '12 campaigns is one of emphasis.  I noted last night, in a quick response to Obama's speech prior to the availability of a transcript, echoes of Obama's major March 2008 foreign policy speech, mainly in his rationale back then for shifting resources from Iraq to Afghanistan. Here's what he said in '08:

Rather than fight a war that does not need to be fought, we need to start  fighting the battles that need to be won on the central front of the war against al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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. Yet in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, we have pursued flawed strategies that are too distant from the needs of the people, and too
timid in pursuit of our common enemies....

And four years later, last night:
Tonight, I'd like to speak to you about this transition. But first, let us remember why we came here. It was here, in Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden established a safe-haven for his terrorist organization.

It was here, in Afghanistan, where al Qaeda brought new recruits, trained them, and plotted acts of terror. It was here, from within these borders, that al Qaeda launched the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 innocent men, women and children.

And so, ten years ago, the United States and our allies went to war to make sure that al Qaeda could never again use this country to launch attacks against us.

You could say that last night Obama emphasized minimalist goals, whereas he was more lyrical in '08 about getting into hearts and minds in Afghanistan and the poor and oppressed worldwide, and that would be true.  On the other hand, it '08 too, he was resolutely minimalist about defining success in our wars -- more so in Iraq than Afghanistan ("bad" war vs. "good") -- but the basic concept, his mode of defining success down, was there.  In the intervening years, Gates was very much on the same page in this regard.

In a Senate hearing on April 8, 2008, Obama questioned U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker about the endgame in Iraq. Here was his own formulation of what  success would look like:
And, see, the problem I have is if the definition of success is so high, no traces of Al Qaeda and no possibility of reconstitution, a highly-effective Iraqi government, a Democratic multiethnic, multi- sectarian functioning democracy, no Iranian influence, at least not of the kind that we don't llike, then that portends the possibility of us staying for 20 or 30 years.

If, on the other hand, our criteria is a messy, sloppy status quo but there's not, you know, huge outbreaks of violence, there's still corruption,but the country is struggling along, but it's not a threat to its neighbors and it's not an Al Qaeda base, that seems to me an achievable goal within a measurable timeframe, and that, I think, is what everybody here on this committee has been trying to drive at, and we haven't been able to get as clear of an answer as we would like.
Compare last night:
As we move forward, some people will ask why we need a firm timeline. The answer is clear: our goal is not to build a country in America's image, or to eradicate every vestige of the Taliban. These objectives would require many more years, many more dollars, and many more American lives. Our goal is to destroy al Qaeda, and we are on a path to do exactly that. Afghans want to fully assert their sovereignty and build a lasting peace. That requires a clear timeline to wind down the war.

In between, Obama very pointedly limited the goal if not the mission in Afghanistan in his December '09 speech announcing the Afghan surge. He'd already had full immersion in mission impossible by that point. but the security-focused pragmatist was also on display in 2008.

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