Mar 8, 2014
The Afghanistan Speech Obama Should Give (but Won’t)
Posted on Nov 19, 2009
Editor’s note: This article was originally posted on TomDispatch.
‘This Administration Ended, Rather Than Extended, Two Wars’
Sure, it’s only my fantasy. No one in Washington—no less President Obama—ever said, “This administration ended, rather than extended, two wars,” and right now, it looks as if no one in an official capacity is likely to do so any time soon. It’s common knowledge that a president—but above all a Democratic president—who tried to de-escalate a war like the one now expanding in Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan, and withdraw American troops, would be so much domestic political dead meat.
This everyday bit of engrained Washington wisdom is, in fact, based on not a shred of evidence in the historical record. We do, however, know something about what could happen to a president who escalated a counterinsurgency war: Lyndon Johnson comes to mind for expanding his inherited war in Vietnam out of fear that he would be labeled the president who “lost” that country to the communists (as Harry Truman had supposedly “lost” China). And then there was Vice President Hubert Humphrey who—incapable of rejecting Johnson’s war policy—lost the 1968 election to Richard Nixon, a candidate pushing a fraudulent “peace with honor” formula for downsizing the war.
Still, we have no evidence about how American voters would deal with a president who didn’t take the Johnson approach to a losing war. The only example might be John F. Kennedy, who reputedly pushed back against escalatory advice over Vietnam, and certainly did so against his military high command during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In both cases, however, he acted in private, offering quite a different face to the world.
We know that there would be those on the right, and quite a few war-fightin’ liberals as well, who would go nuclear over any presidential minus option in Afghanistan. Many of them will, in fact, do so over anything less than the McChrystal plan anyway. And we know that a media storm would certainly follow. But when it comes to how voters would react, especially at a moment when unhappiness with the Afghan War (as well as the president’s handling of it) is on the rise, there is no historical evidence.
Sometime in the reasonably near future, President Obama will undoubtedly address the American people on whatever decision he makes about the war in Afghanistan. Every sign indicates that he will hew to Washington’s political wisdom about what a war president can do in this country.
Ever since late September when someone leaked Afghan War commander General Stanley McChrystal’s report to the president on the disastrous situation in Afghanistan and the counterinsurgency war he wants to wage there, we’ve been all but living inside Obama’s endless comprehensive review of war strategy. After all, we get daily reports from “the front,” largely in the form of a flood of leaks to the media, on just what’s being considered—from General McChrystal’s estimated troop escalation numbers, to Ambassador Karl Eikenberry’s private cables to the president suggesting no more troops be sent, to recent outbursts by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the president decrying all the leaks and rumors.
This, of course, is what happens when your deliberations drag out over months while the key players, military and civilian, jostle, jockey, and elbow each other for advantage. In these last weeks, we’ve grown accustomed to previously esoteric terms like the “hybrid option” and “counterterrorism-plus.” While we don’t know what exactly is going through Obama’s mind, or just when or in what form he will address us, we do know something about what his conclusions are likely to be.
While there may be “off-ramps” and an “end game” for the Afghan War lurking somewhere in the distance in his plan, we know, as a start, that he’s not going to recommend a minus option. We have long been assured that any proposals for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan were never “on the table.” And despite Ambassador Eikenberry’s near zero-option position, we also know that the president is likely to choose some form of military escalation (even if these days, unlike in the Vietnam era, the word used is usually “surge”). We don’t know how many U.S. troops will be involved or whether they will be weighted toward trainers and advisors or combat forces, but it seems clear that some will be sent. It’s not for nothing that the Pentagon is ramping up new Afghan bases and reinforcing old ones.
Undoubtedly, the President’s speechwriters are already preparing the text for his Afghan ... well, we don’t really know whether it will be “remarks,” an announcement as part of a press conference, or a more formal address to the American people. In any case, we—the rest of us—have had all the disadvantages of essentially being in on the president’s councils, and none of the advantages of offering our own advice. But I don’t see why we shouldn’t weigh in. Personally, I prefer not to leave the process to his speechwriters and advisors.
What follows, then, is my version of the president’s Afghan announcement. I’ve imagined it as a challenging prime-time address to the American people. Certainly, the subject is important enough for such an address, even if the last time Obama did this, in March, it was via an unannounced appearance on a Friday morning. So here’s my President Obama—in, I hope, something like his voice—doing what no American president has yet done. Sit down, turn on your TV, and see what you think. Tom