How Obama really feels about Afghanistan

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, November 29, 2009

Dec. 1, 2009:

My fellow Americans,

This is not the speech you expected to hear. But my wordsmiths are tied in knots writing an acceptance speech for the only Nobel Peace Prize ever awarded for making speeches. So I am going to tell you how I really feel about Afghanistan. Which is: steamed.

I want to accomplish three goals tonight without naming them.

First, to let those know-it-alls, Generals Petraeus and McChrystal, know one more thing: This is the last big troop increase you get, so make it work.

I am not going down the incrementalist road that wrecked Lyndon Johnson's presidency. This is not July 1965, when Westmoreland jumped the shark of escalation in Vietnam and then never stopped asking for more troops. For all the trouble he has been, Dick Holbrooke helped by recalling that history in the shadowboxing that dominated my long war council meetings.

Joe Biden has been good in there, too. He's been willing, though not happy, to be characterized in the media as being ready to bug out now. This helped us push back against McChrystal's effort to box me in at 40,000 additional U.S. soldiers.

Denis McDonough, my strategic communications man, sold Biden-as-dove brilliantly. Wasn't somebody just saying I should promote Denis? Maybe it was Denis?

Never mind. That tactic won me room to maneuver toward a more realistic number of, say, 23,000 new combat troops, 5,000 additional trainers and a "NATO surge" of 5,000 foreign troops.

That's my second unspoken goal: to come out of this buildup speech without losing the left of the Democratic Party -- while being able to refute John McCain's charges that I ignored my own generals. Triangulation lives.

Bush put the generals in the limelight to sell the Iraq surge after he lost all credibility, and David Petraeus's performance was dazzling. Which presents two big problems. Petraeus is the only person who could get the Republican nomination in 2012 and make a serious run against me. (I get paid to think ahead.)

And if the generals box me in, civilian control of the military in this country becomes a mockery. Clinton was afraid of the military; Bush was deep in hock to it. I've got to get the right balance back.

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