The speech is over. It was, in many ways, refreshing to see Barack Obama sounding presidential and accepting the mantel of commander in chief. Rather than apologize for our way of life, our democracy and our values, he praised America’s world leadership, and its longstanding commitment to fight tyranny. As he put it, “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 architecture of institutions – from the United Nations to NATO to the World Bank – that provide for the common security and prosperity of human beings.” And, he added, America has not only sought to “advance the frontiers of human liberty,” but has “not sought world domination.”
For the Left, who believes that the latter is indeed what America stands for, the speech was a ringing rebuke. (To get their take, read the editorials in The Nation, for example, or Michael Moore’s “Open Letter to President Barack Obama,” in which Moore says that if more troops are sent to Afghanistan, it means only that the president has abandoned his liberal base and given in to the haters. Or read The New York Times left-wing columnist Bob Herbert, who warned that sending in troops and making any commitment to a war in Afghanistan is a “tragic mistake.”)
With this speech, many on the left will abandon the president, treating him as a reincarnation of Lyndon B. Johnson at the time of escalation of the war in Vietnam. To these people, the president made it clear that he does not see Afghanistan as Vietnam, where today, as he put it, there is no popular insurgency supporting the Taliban.
Anticipating resistance, Obama started his speech with a review of why we initially went into Afghanistan. He told the nation that success there is vital to our national interest and that “our cause is just, our resolve unwavering.” In many ways, as some of the television pundits noticed, the speech sounded much like George W. Bush, who against some in his own party, made the decision to stick by the “surge” strategy in Iraq despite those who said the war was already hopeless and lost.
Despite all of these positives, the president proceeded to be vague as to how the troops would be able to carry out the counter-insurgency strategy advocated by General McChrystal within the eighteen month time-frame that he laid out in his speech. Indeed, by proclaiming now that he will begin troop withdrawal by July 2011, he undercut his own promise to show “unwavering resolve” and to defeat both the Taliban and al-Qaeda. How can he be sure that in such a short period of time the Afghan army will be fully trained and ready to replace our troops? What if it becomes clear at that time that such withdrawal will mean certain defeat and result in complete failure of our mission?
Will the president still show backbone and resolve, or fearing defeat in 2012 for the Democrats and for himself, begin the withdrawal despite the cost in American lives and the possible victory of the Taliban? Or will he, as he hinted, take into account the facts “on the ground,” and hence announce he is delaying the promised withdrawal — just as he delayed closing down Guantanamo, which again in this speech, he promised once more to close. How will the growing anti-war forces in his own political party affect his choice? Will he then be able to stand their growing tide of anger, facing possibly the kind of rebellion at convention time that LBJ did when Gene McCarthy and then Robert Kennedy entered the race against Hubert Humphrey in the primary?
And then there is the question of the message sent to our enemies by this announcement of a withdrawal date. If you were Osama bin Laden or the Taliban, wouldn’t you calculate that you only had to wait out the Americans until 2011? As one Taliban told the U.S. ambassador, “You have all the watches, but we have all the time.”
What President Obama needs to do is to take a lesson from George W. Bush — stand firm, announce his goals, change strategy to fit the circumstances, and not give the enemy any excuse to hold out in anticipation of our armed forces calling it a day and giving up. But unless the commitment is there and the president stands fully behind it, his words alone will not be enough.