I don’t usually watch presidential speeches. Part of that is due to my poor hearing, and this is the first time there has been one since I got what are referred to at the Pico household as my bunny ears. Another reason is that, well, most of them have been boring.
The speech started out rather poorly in my view. The delivery was flat, and the audience unimpressed, visibly unimpressed. A lot of that, I think, was due to the subject matter: the President was talking about history, about past policy, about things he really didn’t like. President Obama’s delivery picked up some when he was past the policy part, when he was giving his reasons for his decision. He was on firmer ground here, personally, because this was the area that, as a politician, he is most comfortable. It never gpt to the old-fashion stemwinder type political speech, but it improved markedly toward the end. I checked the clock when I noticed the improvement in the speech, and it was 8:31 PM EST.
The audience reaction was very restrained. Two of what the President anticipated as applaude lines left the audience silent. This was, of course, a very disciplined audience, the Corps of Cadets at the United States Military Academy, a group of young men and women who will actually have to execute the strategy the President sets forth. I watched on NBC, and the cameras panned through the audience, and I saw a lot of serious, dead-pan faces. I did notice that the cameras focused on one female cadet in particular, of at least partially oriental descent. And there was a lot of focus on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to the exclusion, at times, of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who was seated beside her; I thought that strange, given the venue.
But delivery is one thing: the more important part is what the President said. Unfortunately, though he waxed eloquent toward the end about why we are in Afghanistan and why it is important and in our national interest to finish the job, he actually said only four things of any importance:
- He will send, beginning early next year, 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan;
- He considers Pakistan to be just as important a problem as Afghanistan, though in a different way;
- He wants to hold the Afghan leadership and people accountable for their own security; and
- He will begin drawing down troop levels in the summer of 2011.
Other than the number of troops to be sent, and the President’s planned end date, he really didn’t say anything new. The notion that the Afghans eventually have to take over their country’s security is nothing new; he has said it before, and President Bush said the same thing. The merging of the Afghani and Pakistani problems is not new; this was stated last spring.
And while noble phrases were many, and soaringly delivered toward the end, details were few. The intelligent and educated cadets certainly didn’t miss this: many knew that they’d wind up serving in Afghanistan, but I’m not sure that they picked up on what would be different, what the President’s strategy would actually be. Really, how could they, because the commander-in-chief never told us what it was.
My overall impression was that this was a speech which would satisfy few people. For me, the notion that our mission would be defined not by objectives achieved but by a date on the calendar seems ridiculous: it tells the Taliban, it tells al Qaeda, that if they can just hold out until July of 2011, they’ve won. What happens if the Afghan security forces are simply not ready in 18 months; the President never addressed that question.
I’d guess that our friends on the left will be disappointed as well. For all of the President’s protestations that we are not an occupying power and don’t want to be an occupying power, many liberals see us as just that, many see our presence in Afghanistan as morally objectionable. That President Obama has said he will increase our efforts and our troop strength there will cause some real howls, I would guess.
As I listened to this speech, one word started popping into my head: Vietnamization. This speech could have been delivered in 1969 or 1970 by President Nixon, telling us of his plans to gradually train and increase the responsibilities of the Republic of Vietnam.
President Obama specifically drew a difference between Afghanistan and Vietnam, saying that the Taliban movement was not a popular insurgency as was the Communist movement in Vietnam. Quite frankly, I didn’t buy that: if the Taliban didn’t have some popularity, they couldn’t survive, because guerrilla fighters need the cooperation of the people amongst whom the hide, to stay hidden and to stay fed.
In the end, President Obama drew a very direct parallel in his plan to what President Nixon did in Vietnam. President Nixon, after trying to win the war by expanding it into Cambodia, in an attempt to shut down supply and personnel inflows from North Vietnam, decided that it couldn’t be won, but that he couldn’t just cut-and-run.
The Communists recognized this, and very kindly offered President Nixon just what he wanted: negotiations and a peace treaty to give the United States a fig leaf of respectability, while the Communists would retool for the final push once the Americans were out. They knew, everybody knew, that once the American troops were out, there was no way in Hell the Congress would let them go back in, regardless of whether the Communists broke the Paris Peace Accords or not.
And that’s just what President Obama told al Qaeda and the Taliban. Give us 18 months to rebuild the Afghan security forces, and then we’ll go on our merry way. The Taliban, if they’re smart, will lay low, and let the United States do what it wants, because in 1½ years, we’ll be gone . . . and then they can do whatever they damned well please.
President Obama even touched on the real weakness of this, the fact that Pakistan has nuclear weapons. If the Taliban and al Qaeda are smart, they can wait out that 18 months, wait until American forces have “achieved their objectives” and mostly left, and then the Islamists can attack, and move on both the Afghan and Pakistani governments.
Why? Because the one thing I didn’t hear the President say was that he was going to hunt down and destroy the Taliban and al Qaeda. And if they are left alive, to fight another day, rest assured, they will fight another day.