During the campaign, candidate Barack Obama said the Iraq War was unnecessary, and that it had drained resources from the more relevant conflict in Afghanistan. He pledged to properly resource that conflict. Liberals hoped -- as they did with his position on gay marriage -- that he didn't really mean it. Well he did, he does, and tonight, the president announced that he will be sending an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan to beat back the Taliban and establish conditions for a drawdown beginning in 2011. Neither his sobriety in delivering this message nor his lack of right-wing catch phrases should be interpreted as a lack of commitment. This is what he said he would do.
It was perhaps his least inspiring speech ever. Obama has been at his most inspiring when he reconciles lofty American aspirations with the reality of American accomplishments and American failures. This speech was Bush-like in its embrace of platitudes and vagaries. It was often the least convincing where once it might have been the most inspiring. It was a speech that reflected the president deciding on what is maybe the least crappy of a number of crappy options, without convincingly explaining how it would work.
There was little detail about how the Afghan government would be held accountable for corruption, how the administration plans to prevent the Taliban from benefiting from discontent with the increased number of troops, or how Pakistan can be convinced to pursue Taliban groups that threaten the U.S. and not just the Pakistani government. Despite the likely outcry on the right over the proposed 2011 drawdown, the conditions for doing so are so arbitrary and non-specific as to risk the "open-ended commitment" the president say he wants to avoid.
So the speech won't satisfy his party, which is skeptical that the objective of destroying Al Qaeda is served by escalation. It won't satisfy the opposition, which for the most part is ultimately concerned with defeating him by any means. And I doubt it will persuade other people like me who are generally on the fence. As for what the future holds, ultimately I keep going back to this quote Spencer Ackerman highlighted a while ago, from the Frontline documentary "Obama's War":
We’re going to leave here under shades of gray. We’ll have stability — at least reasonable stability. We’ll have a firm understanding that more has to be done. But in the end, you’ll have an Afghan solution to an Afghan problem. And that’ll be good enough.
I think that's pretty much the best the U.S. could hope for, and it's possible the president's decision will put us on that path. But I can only hope that people internalize a message in Obama's speech that his administration probably won't be able to deliver on: that the U.S. should never "set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, our or interests."
-- A. Serwer