The president’s advisers agree: We’re not leaving next July.
If you are among those who think Barack Obama gives too many speeches, you may not be tuning in this evening when the president takes to the airwaves to speak to the American people about the end of the combat mission in Iraq.
If you do tune in, and you are hoping for some encouragement about the ongoing fight in Afghanistan, you may go away more alarmed than reassured. For when it comes to war speeches, President Obama likes to combine his firm statements of purpose with even firmer statements about heading for the exits. In other words, expect the usual quotient of wince-inducing moments.
Here’s the good news: The Obama policy is better than the Obama rhetoric.
Only three months ago, President Obama told us that Afghanistan today is “no less important than it was in those days after 9/11.” As a candidate who became a Democratic contender largely because of his opposition to the war in Iraq, however, Mr. Obama has used his speeches to shore up his left flank. He knows that the left doesn’t want to hear anything about Afghanistan unless it has to do with deadlines and departure dates.
That’s probably one reason he simply doesn’t talk about the war unless he absolutely has to. If you want an eye-opening sign of administration priorities, go to the White House website and search in “speeches and remarks” for “health care.” You’ll find 400 items since he took office. Now plug in “Afghanistan” and you’ll find just 202.
The rhetorical detachment is provoking second thoughts among many who otherwise support the president’s surge in Afghanistan. Their logic is unassailable. If the president is not fully committed to victory, does it not become absurd, even immoral, to continue to send Americans there to die?
One answer is that his actions may be a better indicator than his words. Notwithstanding his uncertain oratorical trumpet, President Obama’s Afghanistan policy began with more troops. He has escalated the drone strikes against the enemy hiding in neighboring Pakistan. When the McChrystal flap put him in the position of relieving his top general in Afghanistan, he replaced him with an even stronger one: David Petraeus. As if to underscore the point, he put Gen. Jim Mattis—a Marine’s Marine—at Centcom. It’s hard to think of a better team.
It’s true that these good decisions have been undermined by his rhetorical aloofness, as well as by his announcement that we would begin withdrawing troops next July. Indeed, only a few days ago, Gen. James Conway, the Marine commandant, said that the July 2011 date is “probably giving our enemy sustenance.” Though this president is not likely ever to admit that setting this date was a mistake, he and his team have done the next best thing: defined the deadline down.
It’s not only Gen. Petraeus. Presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs (“conditions on the ground will determine the slope of that withdrawal”), Vice President Joe Biden (“conditions-based transition to Afghan security leadership”), Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (“it’s a conditions-based withdrawal”), and Defense Secretary Bob Gates (“the pace and the number are going to depend on the conditions on the ground”) have all made similar comments walking back the deadline.
The point is that there are withdrawals, and there are withdrawals. Back in 2007, when Gen. Petraeus famously testified before Congress about the progress in Iraq, we forget that the first, post-surge withdrawal of troops—2,200 Marines from Anbar—had already begun. Likewise next July marks only a beginning, and the administration can define that drawdown however it wants.
Gen. Petraeus says we can prevail in Afghanistan. Surely he has earned the chance to try, as well as the trust that he will speak up if he finds himself shortchanged on time or resources. Even Gen. Conway, who was so blunt about how talk of a withdrawal has emboldened the enemy, was quick to add that the Taliban is likely to be extremely disheartened when the date comes and goes and most of our forces are still there.
When it comes to war rhetoric, manifestly Barack Obama is no Winston Churchill. Yet having arrived at the Oval Office, he appears to have discerned a truth that continues to elude other members of his administration: However weary Americans may be of long wars, they don’t like losing them. In the same vein, whether this president goes down as a new FDR or a new LBJ will likely be determined by how the U.S. leaves Afghanistan.
On issue after issue, President Obama stands accused of a huge gap between word and deed. In the long run, this contradiction is not sustainable, especially for a war president. At least for the short term in Afghanistan, however, it’s our best case for hope.
William McGurn, Wall Street Journal