POLITICS
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama Afghanistan Speech: Reactions, Analysis

Obama laid out his plan for the buildup of U.S. troops in Afghanistan Tuesday night in a speech at the United States Military Academy, saying that "our security is at stake." Obama used the speech to announce the ordering of an additional 30,000 troops to the region, as well as his intention to begin drawing down U.S forces within the next three years. Below is a roundup of analysis and reaction to the speech.

David Kurtz of Talking Points Memo acknowledged progressives' frustrations with Obama, but went on to defend the approach he laid out:

I know many progressives are disenchanted with this decision, but I'm struck again by how Obama is crafting a new progressive narrative for foreign policy and national security. Not just reality-based, though it is that. But an affirmative, positive rationale. Not a reaction to the conservative foreign policy orthodoxy, though it certainly acknowledges it.

Peter Feaver, writing for Foreign Policy's "Shadow Government" blog, argued that it wasn't a particularly good speech, but that Obama's decision was a brave one:

As speechcraft, it was disappointing. The front section was oddly defensive, with its graceless passive voice avoidance of crediting the old policies and its needless albeit veiled shots at Bush, its tendentious rendering of the Afghan war timeline, and most unfortunate of all, its artless spin ("there has never been an option before me that called for troop deployments before 2010, so there has been no delay or denial of resources necessary for the conduct of the war.")

Democratic Congressman Dave Obey, who has previously warned Obama that "there ain't going to be no money for nothing if we pour it all into Afghanistan," said that he hopes Obama's Afghanistan policy succeeds, but that the issue of how to finance the war remains a serious one:

The biggest threat to our long-term national security is a stunted economy. If this endeavor is to be pursued, we must have a renewed sense of shared sacrifice - because right now only military families are paying the cost of this war.  A progressive war surtax is the fairest way to pay for it - fairest to working class families and fairest to military families."

Michael Steele, the Republican National Committee chairman, issued the following statement:

Although this decision took far too long and it should not have, I am glad the president will finally provide General McChrystal with the troops he needs. However, tonight's speech must be the beginning, not the end, of the case President Obama makes to the American people as to why this is, as he said during the campaign, 'a war we have to win.' If the president remains committed to this crucial fight, Republicans - and the American people - will stand with him. But sending mixed signals by outlining the exit before these troops even get on the ground undermines their ability to succeed.

Jeff Zeleny of the New York Times, who live-blogged for the paper, observed that the speech differed in its techniques from many of Obama's other major speeches:

The speech was notable for Mr. Obama because unlike most of his other major addresses, it did not include any personal anecdotes. There were no specific stories of soldiers he has met or families he has consoled. Instead, Mr. Obama braced Americans for the difficulty ahead and sought to put the fight in the context of history.

The Washington Post's editorial board declared Obama's decision to be the right one:

Mr. Obama's troop decision is both correct and courageous: correct because it is the only way to prevent a defeat that would endanger this country and its vital interests; and courageous because he is embarking on a difficult and costly mission that is opposed by a large part of his own party. Importantly, the president did not set an end date or a timetable for the mission beyond July 2011; the pace of extracting U.S. forces will depend on developments on the ground.

Bob Schieffer of CBS News called the speech "the defining moment of the Obama presidency," while also questioning the logic of setting a time table for withdrawal:

How do you on the one hand say, 'we need to send these troops over there, it's critical, this is in our national security interest to do this,' but then say, 'but we're only going to keep 'em there for 18 months.

Andrew Sullivan wrote in response to Obama's line about having "Not the deepest fears but the highest hopes":

I confess I do not feel those highest hopes. I do not share his confidence in American military and civilian power to turn the roiling region of Afghanistan and Pakistan into something less threatening. I see no reason after the last eight years to see how this can happen, even with these new resources. But if you rule out withdrawal right away, then this seems to me to be about the smartest strategy ahead. But I see absolutely no reason to believe that it will mean withdrawal of any significant amount in Obama's first term.

Olivia Hampton of the Guardian wrote that with this speech Obama had "donned the mantle of wartime president for good," while also noting that the speech remained vague about how the U.S. would deal with Hamid Karzai:

In Karzai, back for a second term after fraud-marred elections, Washington has placed at the centre of its war strategy a mercurial partner. But Obama did not outline the consequences should Karzai fail to deliver, out of fear of further rattling an already tense relationship. That may signal a lowering of the bar on what defines success, the US satisfied perhaps with an Afghan government that can survive on its own. But even that's a challenging objective.

Ben Smith of Politico noted that unlike previous speeches, Obama didn't stress the human rights aspect as part of his argument for the war:

"For the Afghan people, a return to Taliban rule would condemn their country to brutal governance, international isolation, a paralyzed economy, and the denial of basic human rights to the Afghan people - especially women and girls," Obama said in March.

Tonight's speech includes a passing, abstract reference to "human rights" -- but not a single reference to Afghanistan's women and girls. That, presumably, falls into the category of "nation building."

Marc Ambinder, writing for CBS News, said that Obama is taking a huge risk with his war plan:

Failure creates almost unmovable inertia for the rest of Mr. Obama's agenda. So Mr. Obama might just have committed what could be the biggest political blunder of his years in office. And he did so knowingly, deliberately, and without blinders on. [...] Often accused of choosing the path of least resistance, Mr. Obama's decision carries political risk.

Thomas Ricks, a Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, laid out three questions he still had about Obama's strategy:

I hope people in the administration don't think that the last 90 days of agonizing policy review were the hard part of handling the war in Afghanistan. That comes now. I have three questions tonight: Can the Afghan government stop being its own worst enemy, doing something about its corruption and abuses? Will the Pakistani government get serious about combating terrorism? And will the president be able to keep the American people behind him as American casualties increase?


Nate Silver
of FiveThirtyEight.com argued that the big news of the day was not Obama's speech, but was instead the White House's announcement that it would begin withdrawing troops by July, 2011:

Politically, this seems very risky: in the long run, there's much more downside to breaking the promise than there would be upside to keeping it. If nothing much has changed in Afghanistan and our troops aren't getting out 20 months hence, we can presumably expect some major blowback, especially from liberals -- a primary challenge from Obama's left flank would not be entirely out of the question.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson, writing on the Huffington Post, said we shouldn't be at all surprised by the course of action Obama chose:

Some hopeful Afghan war critics blame the Pentagon, GOP war hawks, defense contractors, and oil interests, for arm twisting Obama to escalate. This helps to rationalize their bitter disappointment at the president's disastrous escalation decision. The truth though is that Afghanistan is the war that Obama always wanted.

Democratic Senator Russ Feingold released a statement voicing his disagreement with Obama's decision:

"I do not support the president's decision to send additional troops to fight a war in Afghanistan that is no longer in our national security interest. It's an expensive gamble to undertake armed nation-building on behalf of a corrupt government of questionable legitimacy.[...] While I appreciate that the president made clear we won't be in Afghanistan forever, I am disappointed by his decision not to offer a timetable for ending our military presence there.

Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post called the speech "sober and serious" and also noted its subtle jabs at Bush:

While Obama avoided directly blaming former President George W. Bush for the situation in Afghanistan, a careful reading of Obama's decision to offer a detailed time line of how we got to where we are in the country is rightly seen as an attempt to make clear to the American people that he is making the best of a situation he believes was mucked up by the man who preceded him in office.

Michael Muskal of the Los Angeles Times tweeted:

Obama relied on rational approach to make his case for surge; we'll see if that works on an issue as passionate as war.