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Obama Sticks to His Guns

Listening to Barack Obama explain his new strategy for Afghanistan tonight, you may have been struck by a sense of deja vu. Before a sea of somber West Point cadets, Obama invoked the grim memory of the September 11 attacks. He vowed that the days of “blank check" policymaking are over. He called al Qaeda a “cancer” that threatens the region and said he would not allow the group a safe haven there. He insisted that the U.S. would get tougher about corruption within the Karzai government and would extend a hand to low-level Taliban fighters willing to switch sides. He pledged to accelerate training of Afghan security forces and explained that doing so will allow our troops to return home.

If these points sounded familiar, it’s because Obama has made them all before. Go back and read the president’s March 27 speech explaining his first troop increase for Afghanistan; tonight’s speech often reads like a lightly rewritten version of that one, this time with 30,000 new troops substituted for 17,000, and new specifics about a date for beginning a U.S. withdrawal (namely, June of 2011).

This is not a complaint about self-plagiarism. It’s a compliment for Obama’s consistency and intellectual honesty. Back in March, Obama described his vision as “a comprehensive, new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.” That vision implied a counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan—one which the Pentagon properly understood to require tens of thousands of more troops to implement. For a time this fall, White House officials fretted that General Stanley McChrystal’s troop request had given them a “sticker shock” which required a re-review of their strategy. But no one who understood the war, no one as smart as Obama, should have been surprised by McChrystal’s troop request.

Which is why it made sense for Obama’s speech tonight to reiterate his March vision. Sure, he could have cited declining political support for the war, and the fraud-tainted election of Hamid Karzai, and the still-precarious U.S. economy as reasons for changing his mind. It would have been hard to blame him. But Obama’s reiteration of his main talking points from March indicates that he believed what he was saying at the time and simply hasn’t seen anything dramatic enough in the past six months to change his mind.

But what about that talk of a withdrawal beginning in July of 2011? Isn’t that a major shift from the March vision? Not really. Even in March, Obama was employing a variation of George Bush’s old “as they stand up, we’ll stand down” formulation—except he didn’t mention specific dates at the time. Tonight’s date-specific language sounds like a sop to voters and members of Congress fed up with the war and understandably convinced that we have no clear exit strategy. But the pledge is a largely empty one: In a conference call today, White House officials made it amply clear that the extent and pace of any drawdown would be based on conditions on the ground. Theoretically, Obama’s promise tonight could entail withdrawing 100 troops in July 2011 and pulling out the rest ten years later. Much as the White House wants to deny it, what we’ve got here is an open-ended commitment.

That will make for rough sledding ahead in Congress. Liberal Democrats like Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold are already hinting at plans to impose timelines on upcoming war funding bills. Democratic Congressman Adam Smith of Washington, who applauded Obama for “laying out a realistic mission,” says the White House will need the support of House leaders Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer to avoid messy floor fights over war funding. Administration officials “haven’t been clear, they haven’t been forceful, they haven’t made a strong case” to Congress thus far, Smith says. “You have to view this as phase one." The president’s speech isn’t the end of the pitch. A wave of congressional testimony by top administration officials in the coming days could be decisive. (Click here to read about the six most influential congressmen in the Afghanistan debate.)

And what about the American people? That remains to be seen. I doubt they will have been swept away by his rhetoric tonight. Obama’s speech had high points, to be sure. His tactic of addressing opposing views—like the “false” analogies between Afghanistan and Vietnam—was mature and persuasive, and demonstrated the thought he had put into this decision. (Click here to read John B. Judis on how Afghanistan resembles Vietnam more than Obama let on last night.) It was also wise to remind Americans that recent domestic terror plots, including the frightening plans of the would-be peroxide bomber Najibullah Zazi, have been traced back to the region. (Even more detail about this frightening new development—and less boilerplate about 9/11—would have been welcome.)

But the rhetorical flights of his closing passages were flowery and tacked-on. And the speech contained almost nothing that would qualify as the sort of bracing, hard truth that Candidate Obama promised to tell the public. The address said nothing, for instance, about the aerial drone strikes in Pakistan that are an open secret, and a centerpiece of our effort in the region. Nor did Obama dare mention the fact that Pakistan’s president is on the brink of being toppled. He also weirdly soft-peddled Karzai’s tainted legitimacy as “consistent with Afghanistan’s laws and Constitution.”

What matters most, though, is that Obama has advanced a clear and consistent view of the war of which he now takes full ownership. Behind his premature and gimmicky talk of withdrawal, there’s something comforting about the notion that Obama is sticking to his guns, so to speak. In that sense, he is echoing the signature style of the man from whom he inherited this war: George W. Bush. Who would have guessed? 

More on Obama's Afghanistan Speech:

"Obama's Inconsistencies," by Richard Just

"More On Obama's Inconsistencies," by John B. Judis

"How Obama's Surge Is Like Bush's," by Steven Metz

"A Lonely Kind Of Courage," by Elizabeth D. Samet

"Obama's Other Front: The Hill," by Lydia DePillis and Jesse Zwick

"The Day After: A Hollow Withdrawal Pledge Comes Into Focus," by Michael Crowley

"Sorry, But I Hear Echoes of Vietnam," by John B. Judis

"Obama Channels Eisenhower," by Peter Scoblic