Maybe it was the crass selection of the September 2012 date for withdraw of all of the surge forces, just in time for the election, that was hard to stomach. Maybe it was the utter lack of strategic justification for his decision. But the president’s Afghanistan speech, it would seem, is regarded as one of the worst of his presidency.
It is not just conservatives who found President Obama’s Afghanistan speech objectionable. The New York Times editorial board complains that “he will need to do a lot more to explain why it is in this country’s strategic interest to stick things out for another three-plus years. And why his drawdown plan has a credible chance of leaving behind an Afghanistan that won’t implode as soon as American troops are gone.”And, good question: “But 13 minutes for something this important?”
Meanwhile over at the left-leaning Center for a New America Security, a variety of experts bemoaned the president’s lack of seriousness. Retired Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, a senior adviser and senior fellow at CNAS, writes :
“President Obama’s long-anticipated speech outlining the specifics implementing the start of the drawdown in Afghanistan will ultimately please no one. His domestic critics on the left will assail its speed and numbers, while those on the right will argue that he has put at serious risk many of the gains that have been painfully achieved over the last eighteen months. In Afghanistan and the region, observers will find precious little in the speech to reassure them about prospects for an enduring long-term U.S. commitment beyond 2014. On the military front, the president gave commanders impressive flexibility this year by linking the withdrawal of the first 10,000 troops of the surge to the year’s end. But he inexplicably removed all such flexibility next year by requiring the remaining 23,000 surge troops to be withdrawn by the summer of 2012 — necessitating their removal from combat at the height of the fighting season. This problem of untimely diminished capabilities can be overcome by the commanders on the ground, yet opens questions about the nature of the calculus. But in the end, the key strategic issue for the United States will be whether America’s friends and adversaries around the world assess this speech an expression of U.S. resolve — or as the starting gun signaling a wider U.S. global retrenchment.”
Nora Bensahel, senior fellow and deputy director of studies at CNAS, writes: “President Obama’s plan to withdraw 33,000 troops from Afghanistan by next summer will be widely unpopular. Many military analysts and personnel warn that the withdrawal is too rapid: it jeopardizes the progress that has been made at such high cost, which would not be the case if those troops remained for even a few more months. Most Americans, however, will not focus on the troops that are withdrawing, but on the troops that are staying. . . . . In the coming weeks and months, the president will need to clearly and consistently communicate the continuing U.S. strategic interests in Afghanistan and why an enduring partnership with Afghanistan will continue to benefit the United States.”
Robert Kaplan, CNAS senior fellow, echoes those on the right:“President Obama’s troop withdrawal announcement has more to do with domestic politics than with the operational requirements of dealing with facts on the ground. The president must be hoping that even with fewer troops, the situation on the ground will be sufficiently stabilized by 2014 to make this withdrawal seem smart from hindsight. For he will ultimately be judged not by how many troops he withdraws now — no matter the domestic political realities — but by how Afghanistan turns out down the road.”
And Patrick Cronin, senior adviser and senior director of the center’s Asia-Pacific Security Program, adds: “Many will judge the president by whether they think he can reduce America’s Afghan burden without sparking wider conflict or looking irresolute by abandoning a ‘necessary’ war. As important as it is for the United States to get serious about aligning its expansive ends with its finite means, the rationale for downsizing in Afghanistan should be based on a more realistic, clear and compelling objective, and not just our newfound appreciation for balancing the check book.”
In others words, the speech was a disgraceful attempt to manage a war for the president’s personal political ends. This is not merely a case when the right thinks the drawdown is too fast and the left thinks it’s too slow. Rather, there is surprising unanimity that the president has put politics above national security and that his policy lacks a strategic rationale. The president didn’t pretend to argue that the drawdown with a fixed timetable was going to further our strategic aims. Frankly, he declined to even argue that the de-surge wouldn’t impair our objectives. All he wants is out. To spend money at home. He said it. And it is sticking in the craw of Americans of good will on both sides of the aisle.