President Obama's Oval Office address last night reminded me of an exchange I had last fall with a senior White House staff member at a policy conference. It was in the midst of the prolonged Afghan strategy review, and a very full domestic agenda, especially the push for the health care bill, and I was trying to get a sense of the president's state of mind and leadership priorities. I asked this staff member "In your observation, does President Obama consider himself a 'wartime president'?" The staff member responded somewhat defensively by describing how much the president cares for the military and is committed to the troops' welfare. But it was telling, I thought, that this staffer's answer avoided the actual question.
To be clear, there is no doubt that this White House is fully aware that it leads a nation at war, and that Obama feels deeply the manifest responsibilities of being commander-in-chief. Yet as Peter Baker's excellent New York Times article showed, and as last night's speech only further demonstrated, this is also a White House ambivalent about the term "wartime presidency" because it is ambivalent about just how much of a defining priority the wars should be. Especially in the midst of ongoing economic travails at home and an ambitious domestic policy agenda.
In this context, the president's speech was a worthy-enough effort, with a few high points. But taken in the whole, it tried to do too much and thus accomplished too little. It tried to celebrate the end of the war in Iraq while promising an ongoing (though vaguely defined) U.S. commitment; it tried to turn the nation's focus to the Afghanistan crucible while reiterating next year's force drawdown; it tried to cast the conflict against al Qaeda as the most urgent national security threat while failing to explain the strategic context for why Afghanistan and Iraq matter in that conflict (let alone Yemen or Somalia or other emerging hotspots); it tried to argue that the economic situation at home is the highest overall priority while being a speech about national security commitments overseas.
This last point is another illustration of the potential downsides of too tightly connecting domestic economic strength with international security (as the Obama National Security Strategy does). At one level this is a truism, of course, and has a coherent internal logic -- a strong economy at home enables strength aboard. But in the messy world of policymaking and hard trade-offs, overemphasizing this connection can lead to prioritizing expensive domestic programs (some of questionable utility) at the expense of national security commitments. See, for example, this quote from the Baker article on the White House's past deliberations on Afghanistan:
One adviser at the time said Mr. Obama calculated that an open-ended commitment would undermine the rest of his agenda. "Our Afghan policy was focused as much as anything on domestic politics," the adviser said. "He would not risk losing the moderate to centrist Democrats in the middle of health insurance reform and he viewed that legislation as the make-or-break legislation for his administration."
As with the crammed-in domestic policy section at the end of last night's speech, in Mike Gerson's words, "the president indicated that events in Iraq and Afghanistan were a distraction from his real agenda."
Even as the main audience for last night's speech, the American public, might have come away somewhat confused over the White House's priorities, it also sent an uncertain message to other important audiences in the CENTCOM region. These include the fractious and stalemated Iraqi government facing an unsure security environment; an Iranian regime watching for signs of American vulnerability; other Arab states worried about the U.S. posture especially in light of Iran's nuclear ambitions; or Pakistan and India whose questions about America's longer-term commitment in Afghanistan leads them to their own hedging strategies.
This is not to say that the president's speech was a failure; it was not. As Peter Feaver points out below, President Obama provided some needed answers and notes of grace. But for the answers it provided, it also raised more questions.
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