Obama's Afghanistan Speech Was a Brilliant Start, But Will This End As Well?

Facing West Point's finest, the commander-in-chief played his part.

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By Jamie Stiehm, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

It was the best possible speech a president about to accept the Nobel Peace Prize could have given as he prepared to renew fighting a long war.

I give Barack Obama enormous credit for going up to West Point yesterday to face young Army officers in training who will bear the brunt of his decision to send 30,000 more American soldiers to rugged, tribal, benighted Afghanistan. You could see the thought written on some of their solemn young faces—so this is what I signed up for, spelled out right here.

The still-young president, 48, did not know his audience well, and neither did they know him after less than a year in office. But the man from Illinois was ready to speak and they were ready to listen with respect, yes sir, with none of the antagonism that accompanied the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, whenever he walked on military ground.

All in all, Obama played the part of commander in chief extremely well, with a sort of elegiac elegance. He quoted Abraham Lincoln again, but in a different way, much like a prayer.

There are some 4,000 in the elite U.S. Corps of Cadets and it will fall directly to most of them to lead troops into shadowy battles with a host almost as hostile as the enemy. Obama wisely did not call it a "war against terror," a phrase George W. Bush deployed deftly right after the September 11th attacks in 2001. It's so nice to have a man in the White House who gets no truculent pleasure from saying he's a "wartime president."

Never has the 44th president appeared as grave and somber as he did as he delivered specifics and reasons as to why he and we the people should consider this a "war of necessity," to use his own words from last summer.

Come December the three words loom large. We the people know each one of those soldiers and Marines will cost the treasury $1 million a year. You do the math—can we afford that in the Great Recession we're in? Obama told the entire assembled service academy, "I am convinced our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan."

After all the deliberating Obama has done, with every intelligence report he has read lately, with all the advice from generals in the field, it's hard to put aside a strong statement like that. He made the choice this is not a war of choice, clearly in good faith and after weighing all the angles.

But it's worth noting Lincoln didn't listen or attend too closely to his generals, and I just hope Obama did not give one particular warrior too much clout—namely Stanley McChrystal. The old West Pointer (class of 1976) helped start this whole foreign policy tangle by announcing in London he needed 40,000 troops in Afghanistan to get the job done. He was educated in an Army culture in crisis after the bitter failure of Vietnam. He reminds me of George McClellan just a little, that showy Civil War general Lincoln finally fired.

Well then, did Obama split the difference and try to make it all add up? Time will tell.

What is clear is that there is a reckoning to be done. We the people now must share and shoulder some of the stakes and burden of war. The "All-Volunteer Force" is stretched and suffering much more than we civilians know with multiple deployments and high rates of amputation injuries, suicides and the invisible wounds of mental illness. If this war in Afghanistan is going to go on for even another few years, it's not fair and square to keep only officers and an all-volunteer lean Army at work. Yes, I'm talking about a draft.

Then we'll see what we the people think about a war in Afghanistan. It's a truth universally acknowledged: an all-volunteer force makes it all too easy for our society to go to war.

Only when Obama plunged into the sea of gray uniforms to shake hands after the speech did he become his confident, beaming self. The political stagecraft was nothing short of brilliant, as flawless as a Ronald Reagan piece of performance art. 

If only this new Afghanistan adventure could end as well as it began.

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