I read the text of the speech before watching the video, so I got it first without the trademark oratory, (which some commentators in both political camps thought was lackluster or missing entirely). I sensed some ambivalence and discomfort in what was for me the first real look at the president in his role as Commander-in-Chief.
The criticism from the right is centered on the speech itself...the tone, the defensiveness, the obligatory jabs at Bush, the focus on costs and exit strategy, and the lack of emphasis on "victory"...and not on the policy decision, which is (almost) what the military had asked for, and what the task at hand seems to require. The major heat the president is getting is, for a change, from his left. As limited as his options were, it still took political courage to defy his hard-left base and commit 30,000 U.S. troops to the Afghan campaign. Props are due him for the policy decision, even if he failed rhetorically to inspire much confidence in it.
Full text of speech
In the paragraphs immediately preceding and following this excerpt, Obama resorted to the customary self-regard, scapegoating and apologetics, but it was nevertheless good to see this slight nod to American exceptionalism, if only because such sentiments are so rare with this president...
Since the days of Franklin Roosevelt, and the service and sacrifice of our grandparents, our country has borne a special burden in global affairs. We have spilled American blood in many countries on multiple continents. We have spent our revenue to help others rebuild from rubble and develop their own economies. We have joined with others to develop an architecture of institutions â€“ from the United Nations to NATO to the World Bank â€“ that provide for the common security and prosperity of human beings.
We have not always been thanked for these efforts, and we have at times made mistakes. But more than any other nation, the United States of America has underwritten global security for over six decades â€“ a time that, for all its problems, has seen walls come down, markets open, billions lifted from poverty, unparalleled scientific progress, and advancing frontiers of human liberty.
For unlike the great powers of old, we have not sought world domination. Our union was founded in resistance to oppression. We do not seek to occupy other nations. We will not claim another nationâ€™s resources or target other peoples because their faith or ethnicity is different from ours. What we have fought for â€“ and what we continue to fight for â€“ is a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if other peoplesâ€™ children and grandchildren can live in freedom and access opportunity.
A roundup of reaction, mostly from center-right and center-left pundits, after the jump...
Video reaction from Charles Krauthammer and Stephen Hayes at Gateway Pundit.
Some of the usual petty gracelessness was noticed by Fred Barnes and Jen Rubin
More from Rubin here:
...so we are embarked on a surge with a reluctant and obviously conflicted commander in chief. The essential policy, with a bit of unnecessary chiseling on the number of troops, is not far off the mark. But part of war strategy is stagecraft and convincing the enemies that they are on the losing side of history. Would the sheiks in Anbar have risked plenty for a â€œsurgeâ€¦ butâ€¦â€ strategy in Iraq? Would al Qaedaâ€™s recruits have dried up there had George W. Bush announced a commencement date for withdrawal in January 2007? We donâ€™t know, and Bush declined to make his own job more difficult by fuzzing up his message. Obama couldnâ€™t resist the urge to do just that.
We may prevail despite the presidentâ€™s inner turmoil and half-hearted rhetoric. We may win despite the doubts he sowed about our willingness to do whatever it takes for as long as it takes to prevail.
What has struck me most about Obama's Afghan enterpriseâ€”and his speech did not cause me to alter my viewâ€”is how obvious it is that he doesn't really want to do it. He wants to do health care. Obama has tried every delaying trick in the bookâ€”waiting for three months after Gen. McChrystal's request for more troops, having meeting after meeting after meeting, sending Gen. Jones to tell McChrystal not to ask for more troops, having his economic team say it will cost too much, framing the venture in terms of "exit strategies" rather than victory, etc. His ambivalence was on naked display tonight. Can you imagine Churchill delivering a speech like this, one so full of a sense of the limitation of national possibilities? No wonder Hillaryâ€”when the camera panned to herâ€”looked like she needed a drink. No wonder the cadets all looked so depressed. Would you want Eeyore for commander in chief?
Obama is the first Democratic president in forty years to call for a significant deployment of American troops in the national security interest of his country. This is very big news. His predecessor, President Clinton, could give a stirring address dispatching bombers over Bosnia and be confident of the support of his fellow Democrats, because the show of power was purely humanitarian and had nothing to do with keeping us safe from our enemies. With great courage, Obama is trying something that hasnâ€™t been tried within the living memory of most of the members of his party. He may even recall the era when liberal Democratic presidents -- Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson -- could lead a fight because it was in the interest of the country to fight. This is a historical moment, and one we should be grateful for.
â€œWhat I do not support, and what concerns me greatly, is the Presidentâ€™s decision to set an arbitrary date to begin withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan. A date for withdrawal sends exactly the wrong message to both our friends and our enemies â€“ in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the entire region â€“ all of whom currently doubt whether America is committed to winning this war. A withdrawal date only emboldens Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, while dispiriting our Afghan partners and making it less likely that they will risk their lives to take our side in this fight.
â€œSuccess is the real exit strategy. When we have achieved our goals in Afghanistan, our troops should begin to return home with honor, but that withdrawal should be based on conditions on the ground, not arbitrary deadlines. In the days ahead, I will seek to address this and other questions I have about the Presidentâ€™s policy, including my continuing concern about the civilian aspect of our strategy.
It was as though Obama had taken one of his old campaign speeches and merged it with a text from the library of ex-President George W. Bush. Extremists kill in the name of Islam, he said, before adding that it is one of the "world's great religions." He promised that responsibility for the country's security would soon be transferred to the government of President Hamid Karzai -- a government which he said was "corrupt." The Taliban is dangerous and growing stronger. But "America will have to show our strength in the way that we end wars," he added.
It was a dizzying combination of surge and withdrawal, of marching to and fro. The fast pace was reminiscent of plays about the French revolution: Troops enter from the right to loud cannon fire and then they exit to the left. And at the end, the dead are left on stage.
But in this case, the public was more disturbed than entertained. Indeed, one could see the phenomenon in a number of places in recent weeks: Obama's magic no longer works. The allure of his words has grown weaker.
It is not he himself who has changed, but rather the benchmark used to evaluate him. For a president, the unit of measurement is real life. A leader is seen by citizens through the prism of their lives -- their job, their household budget, where they live and suffer. And, in the case of the war on terror, where they sometimes die.
How...is the check not blank if the President of the United States has defined the mission as serving a vital American interest? If you made the case that the mission is a good idea differentlyâ€”if you just said weâ€™re obligated to the Afghan people and government to give it a tryâ€”then your check has real limits. Weâ€™re obligated, but theyâ€™re obligated too, and if they donâ€™t meet their obligations we can meet ours so weâ€™ll have to walk away. But thatâ€™s not what he said. What he said was â€œI make this decision because I am convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan . . . [w]e must keep the pressure on al Qaeda, and to do that, we must increase the stability and capacity of our partners in the region.â€ Insofar as thatâ€™s true, then itâ€™s true completely independently of how we feel about the Afghan government, so Afghan government actions have a limited influence on our policy, so whatever checks we write to them are pretty much blank.
...it left me cold. Militarily, we are plunging deeper into Afghanistan, but emotionally, we are getting out. There was virtually nothing in the speech about our moral obligation to the Afghan people, a people to whom America promised much and has delivered scandalously little.
When it comes to the 9/11 wars, Obama clearly doesnâ€™t think Americans have much more gas in the tank. He may be right, but if thatâ€™s true, then it's naÃ¯ve to believe this last gasp of exertion will accomplish much. If, on the other hand, Obama is serious about bringing our war in Afghanistan to a â€œsuccessful conclusion,â€ and not just a conclusion, he gave the wrong speech. Because Tuesday nightâ€™s speech was the opposite of rousing. Its subtext was: Just hang on; this will all be over soon.
Whatever the flaws in the speech itself â€” and they were considerable â€” Obamaâ€™s announcement and the details of the plan together represent a landmark moment. After spending a few months desperately looking for another choice, a third choice, a cute choice, Obama did in fact surrender to the logic of the presidency. Having called the conflict in Afghanistan a â€œwar of necessity,â€ he has committed the nation to it, and himself to it. Even his words about troop withdrawal in 2011 suggest the seriousness of that commitment, since he only mentioned beginning the withdrawals and conditioned even that on the facts on the ground at the time.
...there is plenty of reason to doubt Obamaâ€™s resolve in Afghanistan. On the plus side, he committed to sending more troops than some White House aides wanted, and he committed to sending them at once, refusing to draw out the process by announcing â€œoff rampsâ€ in the deployment plan or â€œbenchmarksâ€ that the Afghan government must meet before we send more forces.
But then he undercut some of the urgency he conveyed by pledging â€œto begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011.â€ If this is such a vital national interest â€” and it is â€” why is our commitment so limited? How can he be so confident that the extra 30,000 troops â€” who will be lucky to arrive in their entirety by next summer â€” can accomplish their ambitious mission in just a year?
The Washington Post rounds up statements from members of Congress of both parties. Notable, if not unusual, is Senator Boxer's incoherence.
UPDATE 12/2: Matt Welch rounds up comments from selected liberals.
...and there's very little I can disagree with in today's Tom Friedman column...and that's sort of unusual.
More Jen Rubin, for the "Say What?" file...
...if Obamaâ€™s war vision was confused, the account of his own presidency was positively unrecognizable. It seemed that he was speaking of some other presidency, or one he hoped to have had, when he, for example, declared: â€œWe have forged a new beginning between America and the Muslim World â€” one that recognizes our mutual interest in breaking a cycle of conflict, and that promises a future in which those who kill innocents are isolated by those who stand up for peace and prosperity and human dignity.â€ What is he talking about? The Middle East â€œpeace processâ€ is in a shambles, and he has left a trail of disappointed and aggrieved Muslims â€” from the Palestinian Authority, which thought it was getting the impossible, to the democracy advocates, who thought they had a friend in the White House. Whatâ€™s new, exactly?
But the next line was the jaw dropper: â€œWe must make it clear to every man, woman and child around the world who lives under the dark cloud of tyranny that America will speak out on behalf of their human rights, and tend to the light of freedom, and justice, and opportunity, and respect for the dignity of all peoples.â€ Well we â€œmust,â€ but heâ€™s done nothing of the sort, repeatedly downgrading, diminishing, and discarding human rights and democracy promotion. He hasnâ€™t spoken out to or on behalf of the Chinese democracy advocates. When he had the chance, he did nothing to â€œtend the light of freedom and justiceâ€ in Iran. When he could have showed the Dalai Lama that he valued â€œrespect for the dignity of all peoples,â€ he decided it was more important to show the Chinese Communists his inner toadiness. Really, embellishment in a speech is to be expected, but this was one big lie.
Since we haven't included anyone yet who could really be considered "hard left", I give you Tom Hayden, who writes...
It's time to strip the Obama sticker off my car
Words matter because will matters. Success in war depends on three things: a brave and highly skilled soldiery, such as the U.S. military 2009, the finest counterinsurgency force in history; brilliant, battle-tested commanders such as Gens. David Petraeus and McChrystal, fresh from the success of the surge in Iraq; and the will to prevail as personified by the commander-in-chief.
Thereâ€™s the rub. And that is why at such crucial moments, presidents donâ€™t issue a policy paper. They give a speech. It gives tone and texture. It allows their policy to be imbued with purpose and feeling. This one was festooned with hedges, caveats, and one giant exit ramp.
Despite my personal misgivings about the possibility of lasting success against Taliban insurgencies in both Afghanistan and the borderlands of Pakistan, I have deep confidence that Petraeus and McChrystal would not recommend a strategy that will be costly in lives, without their having a firm belief in the possibility of success.
I would therefore defer to their judgment and support their recommended policy. But the fate of this war depends not just on them. It depends on the president. We cannot prevail without a commander-in-chief committed to success. And this commander-in-chief defended his exit date (versus the straw-man alternative of â€œopen-endedâ€ nation-building) thusly: â€œbecause the nation that Iâ€™m most interested in building is our own.â€
Remarkable. Go and fight, he tells his cadets â€” some of whom may not return alive â€” but I may have to cut your mission short because my real priorities are domestic.
Has there ever been a call to arms more dispiriting, a trumpet more uncertain?