Obama's Speech on Afghanistan Said Nothing At All

He could have given the same speech months ago.

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By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

It is unlikely that President Obama's remarks announcing the new U.S. policy toward Afghanistan will go down in history as a great speech. Nothing about it was especially memorable. After it was over one was left wondering what took him so long to reach the conclusions he did.

For more than two centuries Afghanistan has proven to be a thorn in the side of the world's empires. The British did not do well there nor did the Soviets, whose occupation of the country contributed significantly to the eventual collapse of their particular kind of tyranny. But the United States is not an empire. We do not engage in foreign wars for the purposes of expanding our territorial claims. We send troops into battle on behalf of ideals like freedom and self-government, something that today is a controversial position.

There are those on both the right and the left who would have the United States withdraw as a force for good from the world stage. They question the U.S. incursions into Iraq and Afghanistan—which, during the Bush years, were the bad war and the good war—suggesting now that they are pointless, ill-conceived and not in the national interest, around the globe or here at home. FDR's idea of the arsenal of democracy is, to them and those like them, an outmoded concept, supplanted in their minds by organizations promoting stability and global governance or by extremely narrow ideas of what constitute U.S. interests.

I will submit that freedom, everywhere, is in our interests. It is often said that democracies do not make war against one another. It is more likely true that free people do not make war against one another, finding that there are better ways to resolve their differences. But in each case, Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States acted forcefully to eliminate particular kinds of tyranny that did—or do—threaten us here at home.

In a more narrow sense, however, the speech was wanting because it displayed, in a most disquieting way, the idea that, to Obama, it seemed more important for the United States to be able to get out of Afghanistan than it was to win or, for that matter, to achieve a meaningful, measurable objective as the result of sending additional troops into the region.

Much as the newly-minted Nobel laureate may think that helps with his reputation in international circles as a peacemaker, he is likely only fooling himself. Writing Tuesday in Germany's Der Spiegel, Gabor Steingart opined the speech "left a bad taste in many mouths."

The whole business, for all of the apparent deliberations that went into crafting a new policy, continues to smack of indecision. "Never before has a speech by President Barack Obama felt as false as his Tuesday address announcing America's new strategy for Afghanistan," he wrote, adding it "left both dreamers and realists feeling distraught."

Indeed. There was nothing in the speech, or in the spin coming from the president's allies within his government and on Capitol Hill, that could not have been announced with significantly less fanfare two, six or even nine months ago, somewhere around the time that the U.S. commanding general in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, originally asked for reinforcements. Instead we were left with a speech that, trying to be all things to all people on all sides of the issue, ended up being nothing of significance at all.

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