Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A Tale of Two Speeches

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us; we were all going directly to Heaven, we were all going the other way.
Had Charles Dickens been sitting at my keyboard tonight, watching my beloved 44th President of the United States speaking at West Point, he would have been point-on by writing,
It was the best of speeches in one of the worse of times ....
That accurately expresses my sentiments.

I am glad Barack Obama is the most powerful man in the world and that I had a micro- and nano- role in electing him president. He certainly beat the other choice(s) in 2009 to smithereens. In halfway normal times where my once great country might have faced either a grim domestic crisis or a grim foreign crisis, I am confident he would have measured up close to Lincolnian stature. At least to JFK's or RFK's level. But, in the post Busheney world, we do not live any where close to middling times. As a blogging friend of mine (please identify yourself for credit!) recently observed, these days we don't talk about whether our glass is half full or half empty; we have to focus on the crack in the bottom of the glass.

I guess my point is that if any one can pull off what Obama told us tonight he's planning to do, it would have to be Number 44. He is extraordinarily gifted, and that ability to persuade from the bully pulpit is not to be easily discounted. But I'm not buying.

It's not that we don't have the troops with the professional training, technical talents, and heroic fortitude. We do. I'm proud of them. And I think 99% of my readers are, too.

The problem I have with this Afghanistan policy of Obama is, first and foremost, professional training, technical talents, and heroic fortitude do not constitute sustainable resources when you consider the realities on the ground in Afghanistan. We are broke, as a nation. We can't even afford victory in Afghanistan, however that is defined. And, in Afghanistan, no notion of victory I can imagine is anywhere close to being possible

So, I would have to say that BHO's West Point speech was perfectly honest for normal or even partially sub-normal times. However, in these interesting times, I would have preferred that he would have taken another tack, altogether. 

For example, here's an alternative speech that I think takes full measure of our current circumstances. Adam Hanft penned it earlier today; too late, as it were, to be inserted into the President's teleprompter; but not too late for history. Obama could have said,
Winston Churchill was a great orator who knew the power of the simple declarative.

On June 17th, 1940, he got on the radio and said to his country: "The news from France is very bad."

And so in that spirit of directness, I stand before you tonight and say the news from Afghanistan is very bad.

The war in Afghanistan began on October 7th, 2001, and here is where we stand on the evening of December 1st, 2009:

Put in the starkest terms, we have not been able to defeat the Taliban, to eliminate the pervasive corruption and drug trade that undermine the country's very existence, to establish even the rudimentary foundations of a stable nation.

Whatever successes we've had have come because we've bribed some local militias and tribal chiefs with wads of cash. When America has to compromise its values by supporting warlords who just happen to be on our side of ancient tribal conflicts, something is very wrong.

I listened to the generals and added thousands of troops since I became president. But the Taliban insurgency is growing in strength every day. That's not because we don't have courageous troops and brilliant generals. It's because we don't have the support of the people of Afghanistan. And the truth is that no matter how many troops you have on the ground, you cannot succeed where you are not welcome.

Consider these numbers: In 2005, more than 80% of Afghanis gave the United States a rating of good or excellent; this year, the same number has plummeted to 30%.

To me, that says there is something fundamentally misguided about our efforts. We're spending billions of dollars and risking American blood and treasure on an effort to protect the Afghani people from the depredations of the Taliban, and yet the local population views us more unfavorably year after year.

We have invested billions to build a stable society, but our effort hasn't been matched by enough legitimate, dedicated efforts on their side to put Afghanistan on the path to become an honest and open nation. While there are some admirable people in the Afghan Army and police force who deserve our respect, these are fundamentally broken institutions where the right amount of money stuffed in the right pocket can buy anything you want.

For seven years Afghanis lived under the brutal thumb of the Taliban; basic human rights were violated, girls couldn't go to school and women couldn't work.

Even though we liberated that country - and I don't use that word lightly - America, as I have told you, is still largely mistrusted and often loathed. With real unemployment pushing twenty percent at home, with 20,000 people a day joining the food stamps program, with more than forty million people lacking health insurance, I can't justify a further investment in Afghanistan.

If I sent in 40,000 troops - the number requested by General McChrystal - I am sure we would have some short-term success. Our troops are well-trained and well-equipped. But it's not the short-term that deeply troubles me.

I believe that the presence of more American troops on the ground would make it easier for the Taliban to recruit and to grow stronger, since there is no palpable national desire for our involvement and for the positive change we can bring about. More American boots on the ground feed their mythology. We are a commercial for our enemies.

If the country of Afghanistan won't step up, we shouldn't step out. That is the hard but implacable truth.

Of course, all this would be different if there were national security issues at stake. There were clearly such issues in the balance when we launched our attack on the Taliban. They gave safe harbor to al Qaeda. It was in al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan where many of the perpetrators of the September 11th attacks learned their evil trade and where Osama bin Laden was permitted to set up shop.

But we have largely dismantled Al Qaeda and decimated its leadership. At the same time, their support has been dropping around the Muslim world. Polls show that the number of Muslims supporting suicide bombings in places like Indonesia and Lebanon has dropped by more than half over the last five years. In Saudi Arabia, only 10 percent of the population now has a favorable view of Al Qaeda.

The tide is naturally turning as the twisted ideology of Al Qaeda is being seen for what it is. Now I am not naïve, I know that they will continue to recruit disillusioned Muslim youth, and that we are engaged in an enduring struggle against their belief system and their concrete plans to kill Americans around the world.

If I thought that sending more troops to Afghanistan would prevent an al Qaeda attack against American interests, I would not hesitate to take the steps - despite my frustration with the Afghan people who haven't taken their own futures in their own hands.

But I believe that increasing our troop commitment will create the illusion of progress in a war where conclusion is the only progress. We have sophisticated drones and enough troops on the ground to prevent al Qaeda from re-establishing itself. That should be our only goal. Not nation-building, not defeating the Taliban, but simply preventing those who perpetrated the September 11th attacks to be in a position to harm a single American, anywhere in the world.

So my message tonight is a simple one. I respect my generals who are asking for more troops, but I have not been convinced that more troops are the long-term answer. In fact, more troops are a long-term disaster, because they will only create a situation from which it will be more difficult to extricate ourselves. I have seen no evidence that the sacrifices we've made to date have resulted in an Afghanistan that is more unified in its mission to create a strong, proud and just nation. So I have no reason to believe that intensified sacrifice will change this.

I am telling the Afghan government and the Afghan people that they need to get their act together, and that we will start to draw down our troops at a reasonable and prudent level starting now.

If this tough medicine galvanizes the nation into action, if I see real efforts made to eliminate corruption,

to suppress the drug trade, to put tribal differences aside to begin the difficult and complex - but noble task of creating a modern nation, I will reconsider.

But until that time, and as long as - to paraphrase Churchill once again -the news from Afghanistan is very bad; I'm not authorizing a single additional brave American to be deployed there.
As I read these words that might have been, in my mind's eye I can see President Obama saying them. I can hear his voice deliver a speech for the ages.


  1. Adam Hanft's draft for President Obama's address to West Point Cadets appeared in the Huffington Post (1-Dec-09).

  2. My advice is to sell GM, buy gold & hold. And move out of the city.

  3. Barack Obama’s just-announced plan for Afghanistan seems modeled less on Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam strategy than on George W. Bush’s Iraq exit strategy. Or, at least it is modeled on the Washington mythology that Iraq was turned from quagmire into a face-saving qualified success by sheer indomitable will and a last-minute troop “surge.” But Afghanistan is not very much like Iraq, and the Washington consensus about its supposed end-game success in Iraq is wrong in key respects. Are think tank fantasies about an Iraq "victory" now misleading Obama into a set of serious missteps in Afghanistan?

  4. He ran on the promise that he would escalate Afghanistan, so we should not be surprised. I reject his policy, but not him.

  5. I am with Tom Cat. I think that is what I have been trying to say in 20,000 words or less. Thanks TC! :-)

  6. Same ol', same ol', TomCat: Love the troops, hate the war; love the Prez, hate the policy.

  7. Vig.... SIMPLY WONDERFUL! Great fuppin post! Great.

  8. We liberated the Afghanis from the Taliban the same way we liberated them from the Tariki regime which gave women equal rights as men,stopped the drug trade and opposed fundamentalist extremism.

    Neither was done for the sake of the Afghanis,neither was done out of goodnes.Rather both actions were geopolitical decisions.And I DO NOT support the troops. I should say, I DO NOT support the troops who make drone attacks and bomb villages and shoot Afghanis. I DO SUPPORT the troops who refuse to fight.We have a volunteer army, every one of them chose to enlist. Most because they had few other choices.I spent many evenings trying to talk my youngest out of volunteering to get out from under legal issues.My closest nephew just got back from Iraq and one of the neighbor kids two blocks away lost his life early this year in Afghanistan.
    I am not insulated,even though I never served. But we shouldn't be there,we shouldn't be inflicting the greed of US multinationals on the unfortunates of the third world who cannot defend themselves with nuclear weapons.
    We need to get out. We have no good reason to be there.

  9. I support the president. I do not desert the leader just because I disagree with him. And by the way:

    Screw Matt Hoh!

  10. ..and we have every good reason to be there.

  11. How could we be surprised? During the 2008 election campaign, candidate Obama repeatedly and unknowingly said that the Afghanistan war is a "good war." Given the power of the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex, as well as widespread cultural assumptions of US dominance, he has not been in a good position to reverse course.

    Obama's pledge to begin reductions of US forces in Afghanistan in late 2011 was very vague. There's the possibility of further increases in US forces as the war continues to go south.

    I am left with this impression: We are faced with a situation analogous to that described in the Pentagon Papers in which 85 percent of the reason for continuing the war, and even escalating it, will be "perception," to defend the image of the US as a military superpower that must not be challenged.

    Like the US in Vietnam and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, this is a strategy that will bleed the foundations of prosperity within the US and its global reputations and influence.

  12. Yes, yes, Mike! You and Obama are right. This snake, the Taliban, are being besieged between Kabul and other towns north, west, south and west of Kandahar....Now even the al Qaeda is under siege. We are hitting it from the north, east, south and west. We chase them here and they chase us there. We are winning. We Americans are finally winning! Your long nightmare is almost over! Thanks to Obama and you, his loyal supporter!

  13. I'm following up on my comment above.

    Gwynne Dyer: says Obamastan is following the "decent interval" plan of Nixon & Kissinger in Vietnam:

    July 2011 is not a long time away: all the Taliban leaders have to do is wait 18 months and then collect their winnings. If they are intelligent and pragmatic men–which they are–they may even let the foreign forces make some apparent progress in the meantime, so that the security situation looks promising when the time comes to start pulling the U.S. troops out.

    In fact, the Taliban might not even try to collect their winnings right away after the foreigners leave. There’s no point in risking a backlash in the United States that might bring the American troops back.

    This is actually how the Vietnam war ended. The United States went through a major exercise in “Vietnamization” in the early 1970s, and the last American combat troops left South Vietnam in 1973. At that point, the security situation in the south seemed fairly good–and the North Vietnamese politely waited until 1975 to collect their winnings.

    In doing so, they granted Henry Kissinger, national security adviser to President Richard Nixon, the “decent interval” he had requested. A decent interval, that is, between the departure of the American troops and the victory of the forces that they had been fighting, so that it did not look too much like an American defeat. In practical political terms, that is also the best outcome that Obama can now hope for in Afghanistan.

    If that is Obama’s real strategy, then he can take consolation in the fact that nothing bad happened to American interests after the North Vietnamese victory in 1975. Nothing bad is likely to happen to American interests in the event of a Taliban victory, either. Nor is a Taliban victory even a foregone conclusion after an American withdrawal, since they would still have to overcome all the other ethnic forces in the country.

    The biggest risk Obama runs with this strategy is that it gives al-Qaeda a motive to launch new attacks against the United States. The Taliban want the U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, but al-Qaeda wants them to be stuck there indefinitely, taking casualties and killing Muslims. It’s unlikely that al-Qaeda can just order a terrorist attack in the United States, but if it looks like the U.S. troops are really going home, then it may well try.

    On the other hand, maybe all this analysis is too clever by half. Maybe Obama just thinks he can win the war in Afghanistan in the next 18 months. In that case, his presidency is doomed.

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  15. A note to myself for further reading: Nir Rosen's Something from Nothing, interesting from the stand point of the military and civilian advice given to Obama.