Saturday, May 18, 2013

A SPEECH AT WEST POINT (from Cafe Magazine 2009)

Reactions to President Obama’s speech at West Point have been mixed to say the least. In some cases surprising—coming from some camps—in many other cases predictable. Reactions have run the gamut from predictions of failure on one side to depressing disappointment on the other, to the coming together of strange bed fellows

Our reaction is one of critical caution.

As we have covered in our radio program (“Foreign Policy and You”), American involvement in Afghanistan is a complex situation, made complicated by the nature of our domestic politics. The president—any president—is caught in the middle.

In a previous posting (WIN OR GET OUT! THAT’S THE STRATEGY!) we discussed how domestic partisan politics impact and sometimes overruns our best interest in foreign affairs.

On the nature and style of the speech it can be said that it was at times too political, and although the topic was by nature somber the tone was unnecessarily too dour also. Unfortunately, the president who promised to do away with old style politics could not help himself to try to appease the vocal base. For that purpose, the jabs at his predecessor were not missing. That was disappointing for the kind of statesmanship which was required for the occasion.

But why did it take 100 days to say the same things he said in March? To many observers, the president was simply just trying to appear deliberative, thoughtful and playing to his campaign image and promises that he would take his time, in consultation with others, before sending Americans to war.

But the inevitable decision had already been made apparently even before he came to the White House, at least in March. The president ran on a campaign that he had a better plan than Bush, and a better plan than McCain. He gave us the impression that he would hit the ground running on Afghanistan.

Now it appears that to put some distance between him and anything that would give the impression of recognition of President Bush’s correctness, or of continuity and agreement with his policies, President Obama simply stretched taking a decision that needed to be implemented immediately upon assuming his role as Commander-in-Chief. More than 100 Americans have been killed in Afghanistan under his command waiting for his decision.

And we still do not have a comprehensive strategy for Afghanistan and the region, at least not publicly. Nor do we have, nor should we expect a public admission from the president that “the surge” in Iraq, which he was against during the campaign, was a success. Such is the case that he has decided to try it in Afghanistan.

But as we have said before, the president appears as not having a clear grasp of the concept of "strategy"; nor of the difference between “tactical” and “strategic”.  While he calls his plan “strategy” it is in fact a political device to please to crowds in his domestic audience. The plan is in fact half escalation, half continuity, half muddling of notions to give the impression of a thoughtful plan for withdrawal.

But two major contradictions are still puzzling. If Afghanistan is so crucial to American security, a “war of necessity” why a deadline based not on victory but based mainly on a chronological time-line?  How are we going to motivate people in Afghanistan to come over to the good side if we are also telling them that after a certain time they risk to be left on their own? 

The same astounding ignorance on military matters and geopolitics we saw during the Bush administration coming from the so-called "anti-war" movement is manifest again, this time in full ridicule. The selective pacifists, who at the drop of a hat would demand an invasion of Darfur or Haiti, are the same ones who kept quiet all through the presidential campaign when their candidate stated very clearly that Afghanistan was "a war of necessity". They are also the same ones who have been in monastic silence while civilians in Afghanistan have been killed by U.S. attacks, and in fact think that the use of drones alone is the way to go.

President Obama seemed to be in pain, timidly trying to explain to the American people especially to an infantile left, the reasons for his “strategy”. Calls for “an exit strategy”—an irrational code phrase for irresponsible quitting, disguised in military garb—continues from the same camp. His speech has pleased nobody in his base, while receiving some cautious accolades from unexpected and strange bedfellows.

As David Sanger, of The Washington Post, reminds us President Obama “strongly opposed President Bush’s surge in Iraq during his presidential campaign” and even now “has never publicly acknowledged that it was largely successful.”  But in a meeting with his aides more than a month ago he told them “It turned out to be a good thing.” 

Regardless of the political motivations of the president at least he has honored the requests from his commanders on the field and, although perhaps too little too late, it is a campaign promised fulfilled. Let’s hope that between the speech and the time the counteroffensive begins the situation in Afghanistan doesn’t deteriorate to the point that more troops would be required in the end.

As we have said before President Obama started his campaign with a wrong premise of dividing a larger war declared against us into two wars, the bad one "of choice" in Iraq, and the good one "of necessity" in Afghanistan. That went well during the campaign but now reality hits the road.

Cautious hope is requested. President Obama made a choice by distancing himself from Bush, by failing to acknowledge his success. By failing to educate the American people on the real geopolitical and comprehensive strategy needed for American security he also missed an opportunity to become a statesman, a national leader. He chose to split the domestic political differences down the middle. Now Afghanistan it’s all his own.


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