Opinion: Obama’s revealing Afghanistan war speech: 4,582 words and not one of them was ‘victory’

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President Obama spoke 4,582 words in his primetime Afghanistan war speech at West Point last night.

He said ‘al Qaeda’ 22 times.

He mentioned the ‘Taliban’ 12 times.

And here’s how many times the Democratic chief executive used the word ‘victory’ -- 0.

That telling omission says more than anything about Obama’s 322d day in office when he gave his first major address as the United States’ commander-in-chief.

Through a clever, timely use of leaks late Monday and suggestive advance excerpts Tuesday afternoon, the Obama White House communications team used the public and news media’s intense curiosity about his war decisions to steer public attention toward the number of additional American troops he’ll dispatch into that war-torn land in the first half of 2010.


That number is 30,000, significantly less than some reported numbers requested by the ground commander. But added to the existing 68,000 there and taken out of context, that would appear.... show a strong commitment to persevering in the bloody struggle, now entering its ninth year, that has claimed 936 American lives and another 596 allies, mainly Canadians and Brits.

But reading the speech over and over overnight, another, far stronger impression comes through: Limits.

As former White House communications strategist David Gergen puts it succinctly, ‘The cavalry is coming. But not for long.’

Perhaps appropriately for someone who just won the Nobel Peace Prize while sending thousands more fellow citizens into war, Obama’s speech is not a bold cry to rally the nation for battle, as Franklin Roosevelt’s was after the Pearl Harbor attack 68 years ago next Monday.

Obama’s was instead a well-crafted, nicely-wrapped political speech that calmly attempts to give something to everybody, those concerned over national security and his Democratic Party’s antiwar left.

The president offers firm resolve to disrupt and dismantle terrorist ability to organize in Afghanistan along with a promised deadline to get out of Dodge in 2011. Assurances of getting the bad guys even if they’re inside Pakistan along with an unsubtle threat to Afghanistan’s corrupt and impotent central government. A threat, btw, that Obama made with last March’s troop surge to no Afghan avail.


In so carefully tacking to and fro, though, Obama may have left both sides feeling unsatisfied. A new Gallup Poll shows approval of his war handling nearing one-in-three, down from 56% last summer. ‘The United States,’ Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich charged, despite the speech, ‘should get out of Afghanistan and stop the escalation.’

Now, the Taliban and its extremist cohorts know when U.S. troops will start leaving. And so do America’s would-be Afghan collaborators whose eagerness to collaborate may well be tempered by the knowledge that they’ll be left alone at home before the end of the American president’s first term.

Zalmay Khalizad, who praised parts of Obama’s address, recounts a story that as U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan, he once received a direct message from the Taliban: ‘You have all the watches. But we have all the time.’

After tracing the history of U.S. military involvement there post-9/11....

... (and recounting his ongoing withdrawal of American forces from Iraq), here’s how Obama put it, tacking to: ‘As Commander-in-Chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan.’

The very next sentence is tacking fro: ‘After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.’ As if any military commander can foresee the battlefield 18 days ahead, let alone 18 months. And that’s 18 months from surge start, only about 12 from surge end. Not a long time in a genuine counter-insurgency.

Some other revealing presidential excerpts about limits:

I believe that we must exercise restraint in the use of military force, and always consider the long-term consequences of our actions.... Years of debate over Iraq and terrorism have left our unity on national security issues in tatters, and created a highly polarized and partisan backdrop for this effort. And having just experienced the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the American people are understandably focused on rebuilding our economy and putting people to work here at home.... These additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces, and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011.


The next sentence, tacking to again, is aimed at a perennial problem for Democrats. That is, talk of cutting and running from a national security fight, so seared were they by Vietnam war turmoil that saw Republicans win five of the next six presidential elections. Obama added: ‘Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly.’

However, the president then adds seven words carefully giving himself an out should the promised 18 months actually prove insufficient: ‘taking into account conditions on the ground.’

Much as the practical realities of his much-hailed promise to close the Guantanamo Bay prison in calendar 2009 have now pushed the closure well back into 2010.

Other passages:

The days of providing a blank check are over...(He mentions those who prefer not setting an exit schedule) I reject this course because it sets goals that are beyond what we can achieve at a reasonable cost, and what we need to achieve to secure our interests....I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests....Our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended – because the nation that I am most interested in building is our own.

All carefully-calculated, well-phrased tactical talk. But no words of winning a victory for the war’s immense dollar costs -- $30 billion more just for the latest surge this fiscal year. Or for all the lives and limbs lost so far -- and the additional losses yet to come, possibly from among his audience of young Army cadets.

Meaning what? This is really a holding action? The professorial president doesn’t expect victory? He’s uncomfortable with talk of actually winning a war that he’s sending more troops into?


One other interesting war speech stat: President Obama mentioned himself 44 times.

-- Andrew Malcolm

Related item:

Full text of President Obama’s Afghanistan speech

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