Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Actual News From the SOTU

Afghanistan. I'll admit that I don't hear everything that Barack Obama says, but to my ears at least he went pretty far last night into new territory. It wasn't, to be sure, a "Mission Accomplished" statement, but he sure seemed to embrace a story in which his plans are working and as a result it's close to time to start packing up and leaving. Here's the text:
We’ve also taken the fight to al Qaeda and their allies abroad.  In Afghanistan, our troops have taken Taliban strongholds and trained Afghan security forces.  Our purpose is clear:  By preventing the Taliban from reestablishing a stranglehold over the Afghan people, we will deny al Qaeda the safe haven that served as a launching pad for 9/11.

Thanks to our heroic troops and civilians, fewer Afghans are under the control of the insurgency.  There will be tough fighting ahead, and the Afghan government will need to deliver better governance.  But we are strengthening the capacity of the Afghan people and building an enduring partnership with them.  This year, we will work with nearly 50 countries to begin a transition to an Afghan lead.  And this July, we will begin to bring our troops home.  
Contrast that with last year's SOTU:
And in Afghanistan, we're increasing our troops and training Afghan security forces so they can begin to take the lead in July of 2011, and our troops can begin to come home.  (Applause.)  We will reward good governance, work to reduce corruption, and support the rights of all Afghans -- men and women alike.  (Applause.)  We're joined by allies and partners who have increased their own commitments, and who will come together tomorrow in London to reaffirm our common purpose.  There will be difficult days ahead.  But I am absolutely confident we will succeed.
Those "difficult days ahead" are now only "tough fighting ahead," which sounds, especially in context, a whole lot milder to me. And while it's true that he did include the July 2011 date last year, the entire section was framed in future tense, as if it was a brand new conflict that began with the Obama presidency, not one that stretched back almost a decade. This year, he sounds as if he's laying the groundwork for declaring victory and going home. And, of course, talking about removing troops eighteen months in advance is a lot less clear than the same thing only six months in the future. There's still nothing precise about what it means to "begin a transition" and "begin to bring our troops home," but neither is he giving himself much (rhetorical) wiggle room here. He's clearly staking out a position that things are starting to go well in Afghanistan, and that's going to be the position on which people judge him going forward, I think.


  1. Obama tripled our deployments to Afghanistan: I’m guessing he meant that we’re just winding down the surge. It’s vague enough that it could mean almost anything… even Biden doesn’t know what’s going on. Biden recently said we’re withdrawing all troops this year, only to travel to Afghanistan and say we’re there to stay.

    You’re right, Obama’s rhetoric gives the expectation of winding things down, but that’s not an perception that will take root unless the opposition holds his feet to the fire. Gary Johnson will do that and I hope other Presidential candidates do as well. There’s a growing sense in the Republican ranks that Afghanistan is a hopeless nation building exercise. It’s especially incongruous to be talking about reducing our deficit without rethinking our defense posture or foreign military aid.

  2. The date for beginning withdrawal is unchanged. The date for completing withdrawal remains unstated. Bernstein is straining after non-existent differences.

  3. David Tomlin: Would you call it the beginning of a withdrawal if it’s completed ten years from now? I think you’re begging the question.

  4. Jonathan, thanks for highlighting Afghanistan. I think it's a classic example of Obama doing what Obama does. Here's what I mean:

    Obama ran for the Democratic nomination in 2008 as the candidate who was against the Iraq War from the beginning. There was even videotape of him speaking at an anti-war rally in 2003 (at which he carefully said that he didn't oppose all wars). So he was able to appeal to a large segment of the anti-war electorate...which is in turn a large segment of the Democratic caucus/primary electorate.

    However, to get elected president, he had to avoid being pigeonholed as an "anti-war" candidate. He had two ways out of that trap: 1) that 2003 videotape, and 2) his Afghanistan policy---to expand the war there in order to defeat the people who ordered the 2001 attacks on the US, and who pose an ongoing threat to the US.

    Once elected, Obama set a timeline for withdrawing from Iraq and stuck to it. He then ordered a policy review in Afghanistan, asking the Pentagon for a plan that would lead to an end of the war.

    The generals came back with a plan that included a "surge", followed by several years of ongoing counter-insurgency fighting (in other words, endless war). Obama pushed back, securing their (public) agreement to an accelerated "surge" followed by the beginnings of withdrawal in July 2011. (This was in December 2009, if I recall correctly.)

    Since then, every few months, stories have leaked out of the Pentagon that the plan would have to change, and it wouldn't be "safe" to withdraw troops on schedule. And every few months, Obama has calmly let it be known that he's sticking to that July 2001 date...and so is his Dept. of Defense. The SOTU speech was just the latest (and most public) time he's done it.

    Setting aside foreign and military policy questions for the moment (since, after all, this is a plain blog about politics), note that politically, this sets up Obama to run for re-election in 2012 as the president who kept his promises by ending the Iraq War, taking the fight to Al-Qaeda and their allies in Afghanistan, and now bringing our troops home. Not a bad position for a candidate to be in when facing an electorate wearied by over a decade of war.

    P.S. The flip side of this is that neither Republican response dealt with foreign or military policy in any substantive way at all. The absence of those issues in Ryan's and Bachmann's speeches is another sign of how stunningly successful---purely as a matter of politics---Obama's foreign and military policies have been.

    (All subject to change without notice, as Jimmy Carter and the Shah of Iran can testify.)


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