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Obama’s Speech on Afghanistan: The War That Is His and Isn’t

President Obama is on the horns of a dilemma: Afghanistan was, by his reckoning, the good war of necessity, whereas Iraq was the bad war of choice. But he never took to that good war, and his drawdown of the surge troops that he had committed to Afghanistan in December of 2009 is the deed of a reluctant war leader. The surge troops are to be back home by the end of the summer of 2012—just in the nick of time for his re-election campaign. If this be war, this is war by the electoral calendar. No soaring poetry attends this burden in Afghanistan. We are to wrap it up and focus on “nation-building” at home.

Grant George W. Bush his due: He defended his Iraq war through thick and thin. He ordered his own surge of troops after the “thumping” his party received in the congressional elections of 2006. He was certain that the war was about big things—the freedom of the Arabs, the implanting on Arab soil of a democratic example. High opinion ridiculed his quest, his own party was not into it, but he saw it through. For better or worse, Barack Obama lacks this kind of conviction. The Afghan war is his and isn’t. Defeat is to be avoided but there is no talk of victory. There is an inescapable conclusion that Mr. Obama brings to this war the attitude that Lyndon Johnson had for Vietnam—a bitch of a war, LBJ famously said of that terrible burden.

Mr. Obama says little about the details of Afghanistan. He shows scant interest in the country, though he is to be forgiven for keeping Hamid Karzai and the other bandit chieftains of Afghanistan at bay. He is keenly aware that his own good luck in hunting down Osama bin Laden may have made a compelling case for a deep and fast withdrawal from Afghanistan. So he obliges and splits the difference. We are to stay in the Hindu Kush, with nearly 70,000 troops, and an uncertain mandate, halfway between the counterinsurgency of General David Petraeus, the commander on the scene, and the counterterrorism strategy of Vice President Joe Biden, with his ear to the political ground, and an eye for the popular disillusionment with Afghanistan and all it stands for. For their part, Mr. Obama’s Republican rivals have little coherent to say about Afghanistan. It is difficult being war hawks and budget hawks at the same time. Empire, and its wars, are sure not what they used to be. It is sobering that we have poured so much blood and treasure into Afghanistan and we have so little to say about it.

Fouad Ajami is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a professor at The Johns Hopkins School of Advance International Studies.