By Peter Feaver
It was not a great speech but it was, at long last, a brave decision and President Obama deserves (and needs) the support of the loyal opposition.
As speechcraft, it was disappointing. The front section was oddly defensive, with its graceless passive voice avoidance of crediting the old policies and its needless albeit veiled shots at Bush, its tendentious rendering of the Afghan war timeline, and most unfortunate of all, its artless spin ("there has never been an option before me that called for troop deployments before 2010, so there has been no delay or denial of resources necessary for the conduct of the war.") The discussion of the stakes and the rationale for this option over alternatives and the explanation of the logic of this strategy (and why it will work when previous ones did not) was flat. It was certainly helpful that he included the middle section with its explicit pre-buttal of three counterarguments, but he straw-manned those critiques and I did not find his counterarguments very persuasive (even on the ones I agreed with). The penultimate section, a laundry list of to do items and bromides sounded like a flat State of the Union address (mercifully without the jack-in-the-box response to applause lines).
The brightest spot, rhetorically, was the surprising ode to America with which he closed the speech. It was Reaganesque, thick with praise for what America has done (and not merely what it should have done) and almost entirely devoid of the apology-tour lines that many have found so grating (save one that escaped the editor "... and perhaps not as innocent ..."). This was the section that got the spontaneous applause -- patriotic paeans will always please patriots who volunteer to serve in our armed forces -- and it was the high point of the speech.
(For those who had ears to hear, there was a (perhaps unintended) homage to Secretary Rumsfeld: Obama referred to the conflict-formerly-known-as-the-war-on-terror as a "struggle against violent extremism" very close to the GSAVE -- Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism -- that Rumsfeld peddled.)
But as policy, it was much better. It was almost exactly what you could have predicted (and many did predict) within days of the McChrystal leak: a "split the difference" hybrid option, not exactly what the commanders requested, but closer to that than the "security on the cheap" options that were leaked out of the review process. The president talked about timelines, but I do not think he tied himself to the mast. He didn't specify a date certain by which time he would "end" the war; instead, he identified a target for when he would begin to roll back his surge. That target was far enough into the future to allow him ample wiggle room yet, conveniently for the 2012 election, early enough to perhaps head of a primary challenge from a hard-left anti-war candidate.
And, bottom line: He did not evoke memories of Patton but he did evoke plenty of criticism from the left (judging from the early punditry on MSNBC) because Obama ordered a surge and committed himself to successfully ending the war, not just ending it. Perhaps that is all and more than can be expected.
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.