A speech from the Far Side: What our enemies heard

By Marc A. Thiessen
Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Years ago, Gary Larson published a Far Side cartoon called "what dogs hear." Two identical panels, side-by-side, showed a man speaking to his dog, Ginger. In the first, the man tells the dog: "Okay, Ginger! I've had it! You stay out of the garbage! Understand, Ginger?" In the second, we see what the dog actually hears: "Blah, blah, GINGER." For the terrorists, President Obama's Oval Office address last week came across much the same way. While the president made some obligatory references to our responsibilities in the war on terror, what our enemies heard were his declarations that America is withdrawing and refocusing on domestic priorities.

On Iraq, the president said, "Our combat mission is ending, but our commitment to Iraq's future is not." But what our enemies heard was that in Iraq "we have met our responsibility. Now, it's time to turn the page," and his unequivocal pledge that "all U.S. troops will leave by the end of next year." This was music to the ears of Islamic extremists from the caves of Waziristan to the palaces of Tehran.

On Afghanistan, while the president said he was committed to "preventing Afghanistan from again serving as a base for terrorists," what our enemies heard was that while the "pace of our troop reductions will be determined by conditions on the ground" those reductions will go forward -- regardless of conditions on the ground. "But make no mistake: This transition will begin -- because open-ended war serves neither our interests nor the Afghan people's." For the enemy, there is no mistaking the meaning of the president's words. Recently Marine Corps Commandant James Conway said the Afghanistan deadline is "probably giving our enemy sustenance. In fact we've intercepted communications that say, 'Hey, you know, we only need to hold out for so long.' " By reinforcing this perception, Obama's Oval Office address gave our enemies sustenance as well.

Our enemies also heard the president bemoan how much money our country had wasted fighting them and how this war spending was wrecking our economy: "Unfortunately, over the past decade . . . [w]e spent a trillion dollars at war, often financed by borrowing from overseas. This, in turn, has short-changed investments in our own people, and contributed to record deficits. For too long, we have put off tough decisions on everything from our manufacturing base to our energy policy to education reform." Henceforth, our enemies heard, President Obama's "most urgent task" will be refocusing on domestic priorities, such as giving "all our children the education they deserve" and helping make sure we "end our dependence on foreign oil." Our enemies heard that these domestic priorities -- not defeating them -- will now "be our central mission as a people, and my central responsibility as president."

The talk of withdrawal was damaging, but this pivot to domestic priorities was the most dangerous part of Obama's speech -- because what our enemies heard was that their strategy to defeat America is working. In a letter to Taliban leader Mullah Omar, uncovered by coalition forces in 2002, Osama bin Laden explained that the way to get the United States to quit Afghanistan is to convince Americans "that their government [will] bring them more losses, in finances and casualties." As this message takes hold, bin Laden told Mullah Omar, it will create "pressure from the American people on the American government to stop their campaign against Afghanistan." Bin Laden calls this his "bleed until bankruptcy" strategy, and he has expressed confidence it will work, because the Taliban and al-Qaeda possess something that President Obama clearly lacks -- strategic patience. As bin Laden explained a 2004 video, time is on his side: "We . . . bled Russia for 10 years, until it went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw in defeat. . . . So we are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy. Allah willing, and nothing is too great for Allah." What bin Laden heard last Tuesday was that the "bleed until bankruptcy" approach is having its intended effect. America, bin Laden heard, has tired of the costs of war and is beginning to pull back -- first from Iraq and eventually from Afghanistan -- so we can focus on rescuing our teetering economy. This can only embolden the al-Qaeda leader, who believes -- again, in his own words -- that "America is definitely a great power, with . . . unbelievable military strength and a vibrant economy, but all of these have been built on a very weak and hollow foundation. Therefore, it is very easy to target the flimsy base and concentrate on their weak points, and even if we're able to target one-tenth of these weak points, we will be able [to] crush and destroy them."

When I was working as a speechwriter in the White House, President George W. Bush often said that there were things his advisers might want him to say for a domestic audience that he could not say -- because he knew the enemy was listening as well. President Obama clearly felt he needed to shore up his political standing at home by sending the message that he was ending wars and focusing on the economy. But he forgot the enemy was listening. And what they heard was: "Blah, blah, blah, withdrawal." It was a speech from the Far Side.

Marc A. Thiessen is a visiting fellow with the American Enterprise Institute and writes a weekly column for The Post.

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