Shadow Government

Can Obama jumpstart NATO in Afghanistan?

By Dov Zakheim

I agree with Chris' analysis of Afghanistan, at least up to a point. We would not be where we are today if the Office of Management and Budget, in its myopia, had not withheld significant funds for aid to Afghanistan in 2001-2003, a time when there were perhaps 30,000 troops -- from all nations -- in the country, when the drug trade had not yet blossomed, when the Taliban was on the run. A serious infusion of such financial and economic assistance would have given the Afghan central government considerably more credibility, and given Afghan farmers a viable alternative to poppies. And it would have made the Taliban even less attractive to the ordinary Afghan.

Obama is not being unilateral by doubling our troops. We can, and should, demand more economic and financial assistance, as well as materiel support to our forces, from the Europeans, as well as the Asians and the Arabs -- as we did in 2002-2004, with some success. (Full disclosure: in my job as civilian DOD coordinator for Afghanistan, I spent a lot of time rattling the tin cup around the world.) Involving these states materially, as well as the EU, multilateralizes the war in Afghanistan in a very real way, creates support in the UN, and helps us to work alongside otherwise skeptical NGOs as well.

As Chris points out, NATO does provide a significant institutional and multilateral degree of support for our military efforts. Moreover, we should not forget that when a NATO solider is killed, his/her family grieves as much as an American one for its loss. Therefore, any provision of forces that contribute to actual combat is to be welcomed, and when those forces come from the smaller NATO states, one should not underestimate the sacrifice involved.

There are NATO allies that have put strict limitations on the employment of their forces, and they should be publicly shamed for doing so in my view. The blood of our young people -- and of the Dutch, Canadians, and Brits, among others -- is no less red than that of the others.

Afghanistan is still viewed around as the "good war." That fact, and the goodwill that is showering Barack Obama, offer him a major opportunity to turn the tide against the Taliban once and for all. And now the ball is in his court.

Shadow Government

Maybe the speech we needed, but not the one I wanted

By Christian Brose

A painful thing that every speechwriter learns sooner or later is that any speech can be well-written, but not every speech can be great. That’s because a speech’s greatness is defined by its moment more than its message, and moments of true consequence are rare: a “great civil war,” a nation gripped by “fear itself,” the time for “I have a dream.” The dirty little secret is that most Inaugurations don’t rise to the level, no matter how much new presidents try to make them.

Barack Obama is different. His Inauguration is a truly great moment. For no matter how much we are duty-bound to add qualifiers –- challenges remain, discrimination endures, and so on -– we cannot escape the fact that America fulfilled the promise of its Declaration of Independence today. If that weren’t enough, Obama is the most talented orator of his generation. He was to stand at the spot upon which Martin Luther King, Jr. gazed while speaking of his dream from the other end of the Mall in 1963 –- the same steps where slaves were auctioned before the Civil War. Throngs of people the likes of which Washington has never seen came to this city so they could tell their grandchildren where they were when history was made.

I wrote speeches for four and a half years, but never an Inaugural, and my hat is off to any brave soul who takes on this task, especially for a truly historic moment like today. Indeed, the expectations for Obama’s Inaugural speech were higher in a way than they are for his presidency as a whole. Maybe he can’t fix the financial crisis or lower the sea levels, but one thing’s for sure: He can give a hell of a speech. These lofty expectations, I think, are in part why I'm left feeling that Obama's speech itself didn’t really match the moment.

Still, there are other reasons, too.

Speeches aren’t prose, at least not the good ones. They are drama, poetry, and thus music. And like music, it either gets your foot tapping or it doesn’t. When Obama spoke at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, my foot was tapping. So too the Jefferson-Jackson dinner, the day he won the Iowa caucuses, and on election night last November. Today, though, it just didn’t happen for me. The true test of a great line, passage, or turn of phrase is whether you remember it when the speech is over, and I can’t call any up.

If there’s a line that sums up the mood of this speech for me, it’s this: “everywhere we look, there is work to be done.” Consciously or not, this was a speech about business: Our problems are tough, and solving them will be tougher. We’re guilty of a “collective failure to make hard choices.” Citizenship has not just a “promise” but also a “price.” The watchwords are “responsibility” and “competence.”

The speech was longer than Clinton’s (1993 and 1997) and Bush’s (2001 and 2005), as well as FDR’s first Inaugural and Lincoln’s second. It had a familiar but effective structure: The recognition of present challenges (“That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood.”); rooting the present moment in a broader story (“Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less…. This is the journey we continue today.”); the reframing of challenges for a new generation (“The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.… Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill…. As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.”); and finally the call for action (“With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come.”)

The rhetoric borrowed from speeches past – no crime there. Lincoln’s “better angels of our nature” inspired Obama’s “choose our better history.” His “last full measure of devotion” became Obama’s “full measure of happiness.” And when it came to foreign policy, Obama harkened back to the famous rhetorical device of Kennedy’s 1961 Inaugural address, borrowed liberally by Bush in 2005 – that of speaking directly to people abroad.

Here’s JFK’s original structure:

To those old allies whose cultural and spiritual origins we share, we pledge …

To those new states whom we welcome to the ranks of the free, we pledge …

To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge …

To our sister republics south of our border, we offer …

To that world assembly of sovereign states, the United Nations... we renew our pledge …

Finally, to those nations who would make themselves our adversary, we offer …

Here’s Bush in 2005:

All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore…

Democratic reformers facing repression, prison, or exile can know: America sees you for who your are…

The rulers of outlaw regimes can know that we still believe…

The leaders of governments with long habits of control need to know: To serve your people…

And all the allies of the United States can know: we honor your friendship…

And here’s Obama blending the two today:

To the Muslim world, we seek…

To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West - know that your people will judge you…

To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history…

To the people of poor nations, we pledge…

This device helps to lift invariably familiar ideas up to a higher altitude. But what struck me was how often Obama’s other choices of wording and phrasing dragged the speech down to a more granular, workman level. Whereas Kennedy spoke of “the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science,” Obama just said “nuclear threat.” Lincoln never spoke plainly of the “Confederate states” nor Kennedy the “Soviet Union.” Instead, they alluded to them metaphorically, and there was no mistaking what they meant. The same was true of Bush in 2005 with “Iraq” and “Afghanistan.” Obama, however, called these wars by name. He also spoke of such things as lowering the cost of health care. All of this contributed to the feeling that this was a serious speech for serious times.

Other wording, however, struck me as almost divisive. By saying “there are some who question the scale of our ambitions” or “what the cynics fail to understand,” Obama drew lines –- those who get it and those who don’t –- when some minor editing could have bridged differences. He spoke of the economic crisis as “a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some” –- undoubtedly true, but also somewhat too accusatory for an Inaugural. So too with, “We will restore science to its rightful place.” Point taken. But why not “affirm” science or “promote” it, something positive; “restore” just has a chiding quality to it that seems out of place in a speech like this. And as for choosing as his one quote from Scripture the oft-heard “the time has come to set aside childish things” -– well, this seemed both to remind me of a wedding while also unfairly branding people of good faith, on both sides of the aisle, as somehow infantile. Phrases and words like these sadly seemed better fit for a campaign than today’s special occasion.

All of this added up to a speech that left me a bit unfulfilled. At times inspired, the speech was more often sober and straightforward. What was meant as inspiration felt at times like a pep talk. What was meant as realism about our problems too often felt overstated and overly dire. Instead of a vision for the ages, Obama gave us a four-year tasking –- ambitious, to be sure, but achievable on his watch. That’s fine. These are serious times, and we’ll be back to business soon enough. But for one more day at least, I was hoping to be moved. And though the speech itself didn’t always do that for me, what did was my feeling of pride in knowing that, as Obama said, “a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.”

Congratulations, President Obama, and good luck.