A deep and perhaps the deepest benefit of the speech was that a Democratic president asserted compellingly, and with a high degree of certitude and conviction, that the United States is and has been immersed in a long struggle with intractable enemies.
For eight years we heard this from Republicans. Halfway through those years people began to tune the president out: He was acting on a Republican obsession and approaching it with the usual Republican tear-jerking bellicosity. The Democrats for eight years had been removed from daily national responsibility—the party out of power always is—and in any case it’s always easier to question and criticize than to know and make a decision. But to have now a Democratic president surveying essentially the same history and data as his predecessor and coming to the same rough conclusion—we are in a real struggle with bad people, it will go a long time—was encouraging, and seemed to mark a two-party sharing of overall authority and investment.
We can continue to fight over how to deal with the struggle, but we agree the struggle is real. This sounds small but is not.
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No matter who gave the speech Tuesday night, he’d be pounded. If President John McCain announced at West Point that we would stay in Afghanistan and he would increase troop levels by 60,000, he would have been roundly denounced: “This is just more ‘bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran.’ It’s not a policy, it’s a reflex.” If a President Hillary Clinton had come forward to announce complete withdrawal, she would have been denounced as returning to her McGovernite roots.
It tells us something about the difficulty of the issue that no matter who decided what, he’d be derided.
That said, it appears we’re seeing some things we’ve not seen before. The president of the United States gave a war speech, and the next day the nation didn’t seem to rally around him. This is not the way it’s gone in the past. Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, George W. Bush—when they addressed the nation about the wars they led, they received immediate support.
This is also the first time we’ve seen an American president declaring, or rather redeclaring, a war without a political base. Again, LBJ, Nixon, George W. Bush—they always had a base that would support them, on which they could rely and from which they could maneuver. But Mr. Obama’s base is not with him on this decision.
Can a president fight a war without a base? Will the American people, on this issue, decide to become his base? In the end what they decide will likely determine the ultimate outcome in Afghanistan.
As to the policy, the president chose a middle path, not this way or that way, not 60,000 but 30,000, not “go” or “stay” but stay for now, and stronger. What Mr. Obama has bought, at some cost, not all his, is time. Maybe things can be turned around, maybe it will work, hear the generals, after all this history and all this effort it is worth the attempt. Sudden departure would create a vacuum that might suck in and destabilize nuclear Pakistan. We don’t want to encourage what is brewing there.
Here we should think about and emblazon on the national memory the biggest lesson of the uses of American power circa 2001-09. The minute American troops are committed anywhere in the world, there are, immediately, 10 reasons why they cannot leave, should not leave. The next day there are 20. It is, always, the commitment itself that is the dramatic fact, the thing from which all else flows, and that carries within it the heaviest implications.
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As to the speech, much was made of the president’s chosen audience, the cadets of West Point, who were appropriately and understandably restrained. Their faces communicated one thing: “Dude, I’m not here to be your backdrop.” It is a great misunderstanding of the service academies, mostly held by liberals who lived through the ‘60s, that they are full of rabble-rousing blood-and-guts warriors who can’t wait for a fight. This is a stereotype, and a stupid one. West Point is in fact populated by sober and sophisticated young men and women who’ve seen their colleagues, upperclassmen and instructors die or be wounded. They’ve grown used to presidents telling them their war plans. Some of them may die executing the one unveiled this week. They were listening. What would you do?
In his remarks, the president plowed straight in. The speech’s second sentence announced his subject and its complexity. The first half of the speech was blessedly free of the emotional pleading and posing we’ve all grown used to. His recounting of the history of America in Afghanistan was clever and helpful: Most of us need to be reminded of at least some of the facts, and some soldiers on their way to Kandahar were only 10 and 12 years old when it all began. And so, “We did not ask for this fight.” We and our allies were “compelled” to fight after dreadful men killed nearly 3,000 people on 9/11. America moved, and with a forgotten unity. “Just days after 9/11, Congress authorized the use of force against al Qaeda and those who harbored them—an authorization that continues to this day. The vote in the Senate was 98-0. The vote in the House was 420-1. For the first time in its history, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization invoked Article 5—the commitment that says an attack on one member nation is an attack on all.”
This was all good, direct and unvarnished. It provided forgotten context and underscored the president’s sincerity and engagement.
But there was too much “I” in the speech. George H.W. Bush famously took the word “I” out of his speeches—we called them “I-ectomies”—because of a horror of appearing to be calling attention to himself. Mr. Obama is plagued with no such fears. “When I took office . . . I approved a long-standing request . . . After consultations with our allies I then . . . I set a goal.” That’s all from one paragraph. Further down he used the word “I” in three paragraphs an impressive 15 times. “I believe I know,” “I have signed,” “I have read,” “I have visited.”
After the president announced his plan he seemed to slip in, “After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.” Then came the reference to July 2011 as the date departure begins. It was startling to hear a compelling case for our presence followed so quickly by an abrupt announcement of our leaving. It sounded like a strategy based on the song Groucho Marx used to sing, “Hello, I must be going.”
About two-thirds of the way through, the speech degenerated into the faux eloquence that makes people listening across our nation want to gouge out their eyes and run screaming from the room. Lots of our children and our children’s children, the dark clouds of tyranny, the light of freedom. Our strength comes from “the entrepreneurs and researchers who will pioneer new industries; from the teachers that will educate our children, and the service of those who work in our communities at home . . .”
This is where normal people began to daydream. Or scream. None of it was terrible, but we’ve heard it now for 40 years. Enough. Make it new.