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Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The President's Afghanistan Speech



The President did himself no favors by taking so long in articulating his position on Afghanistan. I say this not as some neoconservative zealot hot-in-the-blood for victory. Quite the contrary; this blogger is congenitally immune to political neoconniptions. Rather, the President's position of a higher troop presence for a limited time is quite frankly just not brilliant enough to fill the allotted space of three months of heavy brooding. It appears that Barack Obama's ultimate decision -- moderate, but hawkish on troop allocations -- seems almost predictable considering his fundamentally conservative but internationally sophisticated personality. Character is, perhaps, destiny.

The speech was significantly "policy light." The policy holes and negative spaces in the prime time address were unmistakable. He relied heavily on Shakespearean theatrics and Lincolnian flourishes but was anemic on specifics. For example, the President failed to discuss, however elliptically, drones in Pakistan. Granted, it is an intelligence issue, a bloody business, and a sensitive point -- but it is a major component of our AfPak strategy, was a part of the final Presidential debate in 2008 and has been widely reported upon above the fold. The President should have brought it up in his major address to the nation. I, for one, was expecting it.

There was also no mention of the legal institutions of Pakistan society -- the bedrock of stability of that nuclear power -- which need serious strengthening. Buttressing the legal institutions in Pakistan society is nearly as important to the country's development as engaging their ISI, where we shovel billions blindly. Most significant in its absence was the lack of hard endings in the timeline the President put forth last night. Also, methinks the President doth protest the Vietnam comparison too much.

How in-depth policy-wise can a President get in a prime time address? Probably not too detailed, to be sure. This was essentially the same time period real estate as Two and a Half Men. But a game-changer the calibre of Obama might have given us the benefit of the doubt. Though big on objectives, little was said for instance on the training of the Afghan army, a key element of any strategy and our exit. The President regarded the speech as motivational instead of giving us the straight talk with the full gravity of his office, like the conversations that many of us had regardless at the Thanksgiving table.

The President clearly suffered from expectations more mountainous than those in eastern and northern Afghanistan. While we do not agree with Cheney's filthy charge of "dithering," it seems there was too great an interval of time taken to come up with this unremarkable -- though quite probably necessary -- solution to Afghanistan. If it sounds as if we are being to critical to the President, a man we have only the highest respect for, it is because we hold him in too high a regard to whitewash his missteps. The Chattering Class -- as represented on the Charlie Rose show last night -- found the speech to be lacking. Progressives oppose the escalation; neocons are happy but oppose the timetable; paleocons, like Progressives, want a pullout. Rachel Maddow and David Brooks, who occupy differing ends of the American political spectrum, were particularly critical. "It strikes me as a very interesting emotional way to go into it," said Brooks, the President's amateur psychologist. His diagnosis was no doubt more bullish than Charles Krauthammer, professional psychologist, amateur political observer (Averted Gaze).

It was an historic moment for President Obama. The speech probably expressed the ultimate limits of speechifying. Man and woman cannot live by lofty rhetoric alone. It is now time, particularly in the midst of this economic crisis where families are struggling that they haven't had to for generations, for straight talk about uncomfortable and complicated things. While the speechifying worked perfectly on the campaign trail, it now leaves this observer hungry, wondering, "Where's the beef?"

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