Obama’s Effective Afghanistan Speech

In a nutshell, President Barack Obama delivered a very effective — if imperfect — speech last night, outlining in appropriate detail the reasons for both the war’s ongoing significance and the announced troop increase, the overall objectives and approach, and to a lesser degree the regional context. Most importantly, he embedded the entire discussion into a compelling vision of balancing America’s national security interests with its broader national interests, while placing both in the context of America’s enduring yet changing global role.

By appropriate detail, I mean that there wasn’t much, but that’s not what this speech was about. As far as policy, I believe his plan is the most compelling option among a host of bad ones. Its effectiveness will depend on operationalizing it on the ground, as well as on the cooperation of a range of actors over whom we exercise influence and leverage but not control. That will all play out over the next year, and it will be the role of analysts and observers to assess the outcome.

This speech, on the other hand, operated on three levels: politics with a small “p,” Politics with a capital “P,” and Politics with an oversized “P.” The first refers to domestic partisan and electoral politics, the second to the role of a wartime president rallying the American body politic, and the third to the diplomacy needed to regionalize the solution to the conflict.

As I mentioned yesterday, it’s clear that on the first two scores, Obama had his work cut out for him, in part because of his failure to make hard, explicit choices last March. But if the immediate political fallout might be more costly this time around than it was eight months ago, I think he’s set himself up well to either reap the benefits of success or provide political cover for a drawdown by the end of 2010.

On the level of Politics, here, too, Obama had his work cut out for him. For a variety of reasons having to do with our national identity and strategic culture, Americans have trouble maintaining support for limited wars. We don’t negotiate with the enemy, we defeat it. That already makes generating the national unity of purpose Obama referred to very difficult in terms of the Afghanistan theater. But in terms of Pakistan — which most Americans at this point realize is, if not the enemy, at least part of the problem — it becomes almost impossible. Still, even if the speech glossed over the detailed policy debate that close observers have engaged in since July, it provided a fairly useful schemata of what we’re trying to accomplish and why. Significantly, there was a clear rejection of nation-building, and no mention at all of COIN, suggesting that Obama’s approach is more pragmatic than theological, focused on objectives rather than doctrines. And I think he hit the right notes to at least maintain the American public’s resolve for the next twelve months.

Where the speech fell flat was on the level of politics with an oversize “P,” by which I mean diplomacy. For a variety of reasons, Obama is constrained from making broad pronouncements that could be interpreted as calling out necessary partners in such a high-profile public address. Still, there was no element of strategic surprise that might have broadened or shaken up the American public’s perception of the regional context of the conflict. China and India both have enormous investments and security concerns in Afghanistan. Iran has its own Taliban-style insurgency on its hands. Russia is currently catching sparks in its efforts to sit on the powderkeg of Islamic insurgencies in the North Caucasus. The Central Asian ‘Stans all have security and potential trade interests in Afghanistan.

But you wouldn’t know any of that from the address. The widest-angle view we got of the broader partnerships in this conflict was Pakistan and NATO allies. I remain skeptical about the latter’s willingness to poney up more troops. At the same time, I have a hard time imagining that the White House vetters would have allowed the president to state he was “confident” they would if there weren’t already assurances made. Also, the absence of the other actors from the speech does not mean they won’t be part of the approach moving forward. To the contrary, I think there will be a more energized initiative to regionalize the solution. But last night’s address was a missed opportunity to introduce the American public to the need for such an effort.

Since the presidential campaign, I’ve maintained a practiced resistanceto the emotional appeal of Obama’s oratory. Butwatching the video of last night’s speech, I found myself admiring theintellectual quality of the address. It was hard not to get the sensethat he really has a solid grasp of the bigpicture, especially at the end where he pulled back for a wide-angleview. The quesiton now is whether the facts on the ground in Afghanistan will end up undermining that broader agenda.

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