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President Obama's prime-time address on Afghanistan

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Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Associate Editor
Tuesday, December 1, 2009; 9:00 PM

Washington Post Associate Editor Robert G. Kaiser was online Tuesday, Dec. 1, at 9 p.m. ET to discuss and analyze President Obama's prime-time speech from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., on his strategy for Afghanistan.

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Timeline: War in Afghanistan

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Robert G. Kaiser: Good evening. Thanks for dropping by. I hope we can have a stimulating discussion over the next hour or so.

This was another carefully constructed, eloquent speech from President Obama. We really do have a fine speech-maker in the White House, whatever you make of his decisions and choices.

His challenge here was to say "we're going in further," but also to say "we're getting out soon." Is that contradictory? It easily could be. Things always sound simpler and cleaner in a speech than they turn out in reality, especially when the subject is war. In my experience, wars invariably proceed in unpredictable ways. Sometimes they go more easily than expected-the first gulf war of President George H. W. Bush is a good example. More often they go much worse than hoped or expected-the Iraq and Afghan wars of George W. Bush are good examples of that.

I'm not an optimist about this round in Afghanistan, but I'm not a seer either.

Please post your comments and questions. And please take our poll. It won't produce a scientific result, but it gives you a chance to register a view. And yes, the poll is oversimplified; most polls are. But I'm curious to see what it produces.

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Reston, Va.: Haven't we had enough foreign wars? Why not end the wars and spend the money on the American economy and American jobs?

Robert G. Kaiser: Here's an interesting starting point. For the first 140 or so years of American history, the only serious war we got into was our own civil war. There were a few foreign adventures, but nothing on a big scale. But since World War I we've had them one after another. At the moment, for the first time in history, we have two large wars going on simultaneously.

Retired Army Col. Andrew Bacevich has written eloquently about this militarization. We have changed. Opinions like yours are not uncommon. I wonder if we will hear them more loudly in the years ahead?

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Washington, D.C.: Dick Cheney and Karl Rove were criticizing Obama's speech before he made it. Do they have any real standing in this debate?

Robert G. Kaiser: I have to say I shook my head reading about their comments on washingtonpost.com earlier today. I don't see how the Bush administration can avoid responsibility for the mess in Afghanistan--politically now, or historically later. As the Senate Foreign Relations Committee reminded us last week, the Bush administration did fail to nail Osama when it had a real chance to do so in the first phase of the Afghan war. It did rush from Afghanistan to Iraq (a great idea, what?) long before the larger goals of invading Afghanistan had been achieved. And now they want to attack Obama?

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washingtonpost.com: Cheney, Rove take lead in prebutting Obama Afghanistan speech (Post/44, Dec. 1)

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Terre Haute, Ind.: Will loyal Americans get behind their duly elected and installed president? Will any of his points "strike home" with his detractors? Can any citizens listen to the content without all the ad hominem stuff interfering with their judgment?

Robert G. Kaiser: Very good questions, and of course I can't answer them now. I was struck by Obama's stubborn return to his theme from the campaign. Tonight's version: "I believe with every fiber of my being that we -- as Americans -- can still come together behind a common purpose." A cynical old newspaperman is tempted to ask, "what's your evidence, Mr. President?"

But then he reminds us of that remarkable moment in September, 2001, when we all really were united, for a time.

This speech won't have the effect of the attack on the World Trade Center, obviously. But I suspect it will help Obama in Washington--for a time.

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Chicago, Ill.: Since the Taliban is able to "melt" into the general population at any moment, isn't Obama's plan risking that the Taliban simply "waits out" the U.S. for the next three years before re-asserting territorial authority?

Robert G. Kaiser: You know, the Taliban is not some alien force in Afghanistan. Its members are all Afghans. One of the hardest things for Americans to get, I think, is how different some societies can be from our own, how utterly FOREIGN. Afghanistan is not a country in any traditional sense. Its people speak different languages, belong to different ethnic groups, have different, not shared, histories, etc. Can you build a nation where there is no history of a real nation? I am dubious.

So I think, excuse me for being blunt, that your question misstates the situation. The Taliban will be evident in Afghanistan for years to come. With great good luck it will be reduced to the status of nutty fringe group. With bad luck it will be back in power.

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New York: Robert, I was struck by the president's emphasis on the limits of our national wallet for this war. We're going to do what we can afford to do, and no more. Has there ever been a precedent for such an approach to war? Thanks for the chat.

Robert G. Kaiser: Alas, he said there were limits, but he also copped out. "I will work closely with Congress to address these costs [of the war] as we work to bring down our deficit," he said tonight. Work with the Congress that has already foisted off on our children and grandchildren trillions of unpaid bills? Bring down the deficit that has climbed so dramatically in the last nine years?

The Post editorial page had an interesting editorial today on paying for the war. It would have been pretty dramatic if Obama had found the courage to propose, tonight, a way to pay for what he is proposing to do. But I didn't expect him to do it.

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Norfollk, Va.: Mr Kaiser, can you explain what Obama's objective in Afghanistan is? What are the goals and objectives? If we're going to defeat al-Qaeda and the Taliban, then why the 30- month expiration date? Won't that just encourage them?

Robert G. Kaiser: I'm not sure I can, but I'll try: I heard him saying tonight that the objective now is first to whack the Taliban hard and weaken them for the short term, then take a combination of economic, technical and political steps to try to give the Afghan government and people the tools they need to create something like a real country that can survive. In that context, our leaving is important. There's no way the Afghans will take care of business themselves if we are there to take care of it for them. And there's no way we can stay forever, either.

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washingtonpost.com: Editorial: Paying for War (Post, Dec.1)

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Hampton: The surge in Iraq worked precisely because Bush was committed to winning. It sounds like the only thing Obama is committed to is avoiding blame. Thirty thousand troops for 30 months is not a commitment to winning. It sounds like a new GM warranty. Why do we have a timeline for withdrawal but NO clear goals?

Robert G. Kaiser: In what sense do you think "the surge in Iraq worked"? Sure it bought us time to start withdrawing, but Iraq is far, far from a stable situation. I for one wouldn't suggest that we have now redeemed the huge investment of blood and treasure we have made there--would you? And what is "victory" in these situations? How do you measure it, or know you have it? I think both Iraq and Afghanistan are vastly more complicated than your question implies.

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Detroit, Mich.: So Obama promises 10,000 troops fewer than his hand- picked general says are needed, and he promises a withdrawal date.

Man, he better get lucky. If this goes badly, it's his fault for not doing what his general said.

Robert G. Kaiser: You know, we have, since the beginning, civilian control of the military in the United States, and a good thing too in my opinion. Do you know our military history? Or how many utterly egregious, foolish mistakes our generals have made? Douglas McArthur mean anything to you?

Obviously, I see this differently than you do. Obama's responsibility is to all Americans, and to the overall well-being of the country. Gen. McChrystal's responsibility is vastly more narrow than that. He has no particular claim on the president's attention, and shouldn't. Didn't we elect Obama to exercise his judgment, not some general's?

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washingtonpost.com: Obama announces 30,000 additional troops for Afghanistan (Post, Dec.1)

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San Francisco, Calif.: I wanted Obama to clarify how comparing Afghanistan with Vietnam is a misreading of history. Can you speculate as to his meaning?

Robert G. Kaiser: As longtime readers know, I was a young reporter in Vietnam, so I paid special attention to that passage of Obama's speech, and I was impressed by it.

Here's what Obama said tonight, from the prepared text:

there are those who suggest that Afghanistan is another Vietnam. They argue that it cannot be stabilized, and we are better off cutting our losses and rapidly withdrawing. Yet this argument depends upon a false reading of history. Unlike Vietnam, we are joined by a broad coalition of 43 nations that recognizes the legitimacy of our action. Unlike Vietnam, we are not facing a broad-based popular insurgency. And most importantly, unlike Vietnam, the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan, and remain a target for those same extremists who are plotting along its border.

In other words, he points out, we had a handfull of allies in Vietnam, in Afghanistan we have dozens. The Taliban is a small faction, nothing like the popular Vietcong in Vietnam. Vietnam never aided or abetted an attack on the U.S., but Afghanistan did. These are indeed three important differences.

But they don't of course guarantee that we can do a much better job in Afghanistan than we could in Vietnam. Both are really tough challenges, and there's no obvious grounds for optimism that Americans and their non-Afghan allies can find the way to fix up the situation in Afghanistan.

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Fresh Meadows, N.Y.: How realistic is it to call the Karzai government or even regional war loads our "partners"? How reliable is the Afghan army? Also, how do you really stop the Taliban? Aren't they considered a social service agency by some? Finally, the president admitted that al-Qaeda is in other countries like Yemen. Are we going there next? I'm beginning to feel like Alice in Wonderland....

Thanks for the chat.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thank you for the post. Which way to Wonderland?

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Alexandria, Va.: Robert, that was hardly a rousing call-to-arms. He sounded reluctant, guarded. He made a point of refuting some strawman arguments against his strategy. Would you want to go to war for that man?

But... the left has to be appeased, right? It's a short-term commitment. Obama's no war-monger.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for this. Interesting.

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New Orleans, La.: The increase in efforts in Afghanistan will require additional spending in materiel, research and development, and construction of infrastructure in country as well as here in the U.S. Jobs will be created to do this here in the U.S. helping ease the ones who are jobless back into the work place. So in the long run will not only stabilization in the countries in which the war is being waged be implemented and at the same time economic stability in this this country will be implemented by the demands for more goods and services which will put people to work?

Robert G. Kaiser: I wish it were so easy. Study after study has shown that spending on wars is a pretty lousy way to get a domestic economic benefit in this country. It could hardly be less efficient.

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New York: I had one thought during the whole speech: I can't imagine having to make this kind of decision. What a tangled web. My fingers are firmly crossed.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thank you for this. I absolutely agree. As a writer who aspires to write history, I am struck by the incredible bad luck of Barack Obama. He inherited a collapsing national and world economy, two wars going a lot less well than anyone would have liked, a bitterly partisan and divided American polity, America at its lowest ebb of popularity or respect in the world in memory, perhaps ever--none of it remotely his fault. Yet we now expect him to fix everything up, pronto. Fat chance.

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Arlington, Va.: Mr Kaiser, you seem more impressed with Obama's speech than I was. I've heard a lot of them (I voted for him), and some of it seems a little tired to me. "Let me be clear..." he says. Then he trots out some strawmen and beats them around. Then he lays out a general statement but never gets to any specifics.

Are you sure it was a brilliant speech? Or are you just suffering from post-traumatic leg-tingling?

Robert G. Kaiser: I didn't say brilliant, I said eloquent, and I do think it was that. And I do thank you for posting.

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Robert G. Kaiser: POLL BREAK:

Just asked my fine produce Rocci Fisch how the poll is going. Revealingly, it's nearly a tie: nearly exactly the same number of respondents say we're headed for a quagmire as say we are now aimed toward an end to the war. Thanks for voting. Keep 'em coming.

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Washington, D.C.: War spending is less beneficial but easier to achieve. It's a lower bang for the buck, but the bucks are easier to justify. We'd do better with greater human kindness for our fellow Americans, but we can't sell it.

Robert G. Kaiser: Well said. Thanks.

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Washington, D.C.: Obama was elected to end the wars. In 2006, the Republicans lost the House and Senate over the wars. In 2007, we got a surge. In 2008, Hillary lost the nomination over her 2002 war vote. In 2008, the voters demand a change of course and elected Obama. A year later, there is no change. It's a dagger to the heart of the reason for him being president and endangers everything else on the agenda.

Robert G. Kaiser: Consider this posting: Everything is so simply explained! Just like real life, no?

No.

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San Francisco bay area: Obama's rhetoric about what is at stake is "the common security of the world" seems bombastic, akin, among others, to Wilson in his "make the world safe for democracy" speech and Truman's bellicose speech, declaring the Truman Doctrine. Obama, if he really believed the "common security of the world" is involved would send three hundred thousand troops, bring back the draft and order an invasion of western Pakistan.

Does anyone really believe he will order the beginning of a withdrawal of troops in a year and a half, if generals there are opposed?

Robert G. Kaiser: Perhaps because my very first book, published 35 years ago, was about the Truman Doctrine, I'm going to challenge you here. Wilson, Truman and Obama tonight were, if all bombastic, all trying to cope with the fact that they were/are president of a democratic republic. Wilson knew he was up against a powerful isolationist strain in American life, and would never have won support for entry into World War I with a cool, reasoned argument. Truman was told by Arthur Vandenberg and many other key politicians in 1947 that he had to oversell the Truman Doctrine or there was no chance of its approval. And obviously, Obama has a big political problem now, in many ways more complicated than the ones faced by the first two. So I am not going to share your view.

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New York: Robert, your colleagues on the live blog/fact check beat focused on the 2011 withdrawal timeline, suggesting it could come back to bite Obama. Will we withdraw on schedule, regardless of whether the job's done? If not, another missed deadline...

Robert G. Kaiser: good for them. Of course he is now hostage to that date. So if Karzai, however.

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Anonymous: Were the leaks about the president's plans intentional? It seems most people knew details days ago regarding troop numbers and timelines. If the leaks were not intentional trial balloons, what can account for such top secret stuff getting so far ahead of tonight's speech?

Robert G. Kaiser: The leaks were inevitable. Obama had to tell the military what was coming. He had to tell numerous foreign leaders what was coming. Knowing that leaks would follow, it looks to me as though senior officials here decided they ought to leak selectively to the serious papers in the U.S. And that was probably a good idea, so that everyone did know essentially what was coming. Why not?

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Charlottesville, Va.: Our success, as per the strategy outlined by Obama, depends on building the capacity of the Afghan gov't to the extent that they are competent to secure their country, run an economy and provide jobs, and provide effective governance and win the country's support. However, the country has never really been a country, the literacy rate is something like 7 percent (one of the lowest rates in the world), and the Karzai gov't seems to have basically stolen the recent election and lacks credibility domestically and internationally, but they have just been handed a new term.

What do you see as the prospect that the "Afghanization" strategy can produce any tangible and sustainable results any time in the near future?

Robert G. Kaiser: Nicely summarized. You've nailed the big problem. We can't do it alone, and the people who can do it wouldn't be chosen for the role in a month of Sundays, as my 96-year-old mother likes to say.

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washingtonpost.com: Live Blog

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Washington, DC: Mr. Kaiser, I have read all the live chats you have done after an Obama speech, and frankly, you seem more of a "fanboy" than an analyst. You're free to be as enthusiastic a supporter of the president as you want, but when you wear your professional hat, don't you think that you need to exercise some professional objectivity? Perhaps it would be best for you to have somebody more detached handle these chats. I mean no personal disrespect, but honestly, it's a bit embarrassing to read some of your comments.

Robert G. Kaiser: I'm trying my best! Seriously, my professional training and experience is at work here. What recent president do you remember who had this fluency with words or competence with complex issues? I don't agree with him personally on a lot of things, but the half-dozen or so speeches I've done chats about have, in my considered judgment, all been good rhetorical exercises.

I'd rather here a contrary analysis or interpretation from you than a criticism of me. More interesting.

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Southeastern Pennsylvania: You are really quite partisan in your answers tonight -- are you angling for a seat on MSNBC? I agree with commenter from D.C. because it really is simple: Obama ran as a progressive who would get us the heck out of these foreign entanglements, and he's definitely a progressive but one wearing a "Hawks clothing." Remind me again did Obama serve in the military at all before his stint as Commander-In-Chief ?

Robert G. Kaiser: Did Reagan? Did Clinton? Did G.W. Bush?

Is pleading for recognition of the complexity of these issues "partisan"? I sure hope not.

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Arlington, Va.: How we can deal with Pakistan?

Robert G. Kaiser: Thank you for this, which of course is the man-eating dragon in the closet. As my colleague Karen DeYoung has been writing in her splendid coverage over recent weeks, the administration sees Pakistan, not Afghanistan, as the big problem here. Absent it, I'm quite sure Obama would have folded the tent in Afghanistan. But the two are inextricable.

Pakistan is a real country, but it's a terrible mess. And it has nukes. And a lousy political culture. And a corrupt president. And on and on.

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New York, N.Y.: Did I hear the president correctly that they had recently arrested people trained in Afghanistan/Pakistan within our borders? Do you know what incident he was referring to specifically? How significant of a threat is that really?

Robert G. Kaiser: This caught my eye/ear also, and I don't know what he is referring to. Welcome posts from those who do.

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washingtonpost.com: U.S. offers new role for Pakistan (Post, Nov. 30)

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Washington, DC: Thanks for taking these questions. As someone who volunteered to be part of the "civilian surge" and will be going to Afghanistan soon, I was a bit disappointed that the president did not mention this component of his strategy. Why do you think he focused only on the military piece, and not the broader reconstruction and stabilization picture?

Robert G. Kaiser: Good question. Sort of baffling. Obviously, if you and your colleagues can't make a lot of progress, the effort isn't going anywhere.

Thanks for your service.

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Washington, D.C.: Look ahead twenty years -- what will historians say then about Obama's first year in office?

Robert G. Kaiser: Of course I know the answer to this question, but I am not authorized to share it tonight, I'm sorry.

Hah. Always fun to speculate, and always impossible to know. I was intrigued by a pro-Obama analysis of the first year in office by our colleague Jacob Weisberg of SLATE, the online magazine of political commentary owned by The Washington Post Co. I hope we can give you a link to it here. Weisberg argues that if Obama gets a health reform bill before Jan. 20, he'll go down in history as remarkably successful in his first year.

But so much can go wrong: a double-dip recession, for example. Or big trouble in Iraq and/or Afghanistan. Or another terrorist attack. Or you name it.

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washingtonpost.com: Obama's Brilliant First Year (Slate, Nov. 28)

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Washington, D.C.: Bob, you're surely more informed about the Vietnam War than I am, but I found the president's attempt to debunk the comparison utterly unconvincing. We couldn't win that war with over 500,000 of our own troops; does he really mean to suggest that with some help from allies, we could've pulled it off? Also, how does our rationale for going into Afghanistan in the first place determine whether the country can be stabilized? I'd argue that that's a function of the circumstances on the ground. Your thoughts?

Robert G. Kaiser: Obama and I were talking more about the reason for getting involved than about the prospects for success, I think. I can't quarrel with anything you say. The real problem, in my view, is that these problems aren't soluble just with troops. Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan are all political challenges. A happy ending can be provided only by the natives, not by us. This is the great weakness in the old Afghan strategy, and in the new Afghan strategy. Its success depends on Hamid Karzai and his buddies, and his rivals. Alas.

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Fairfax, Va.: What do people want? Us to beat it quickly out of Afghanistan? I am so grateful that the president is thoughtful, analytical and doesn't just think from his gut. I admire his ability to make tough decisions that may or may not help him politically. I truly think we have a leader here. Finally.

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks for posting.

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Baltimore, Md.: Will our troops be handcuffed by restrictive rules of engagement? Obama's semi-tough talk about cross-border attacks into Pakistan (despite his nonsensical partnership with Pakistan talk) made it sound like he's willing to let our boys fight.

But... it seems doubtful to me. The first time a "baby milk factory" gets bombed, won't Obama put the kid gloves on?

Robert G. Kaiser: Are kid gloves really our problem? I wonder.

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St. Paul, Minn.: Robert -- Thanks for taking questions tonight. I just heard Rep. Maxine Waters say on television that she can't get behind Obama on this one and a lot of her liberal/progressive members won't either. Any big surprise there? Can Obama, with this issue as with so many others, ever win for losing? Is he most damned if you do, damned if you don't president in our history?

Robert G. Kaiser: The practical political problem here is not small. Will any Democratic liberals line up tonight or tomorrow and say Yes! I want this new policy!

And will the young people who bought into "change you can believe in" buy into this?

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Washington, D.C.: How difficult would it have been for Obama to explain that, as much as the generals would like another surge, America voted in 2008 to try a political solution?

Robert G. Kaiser: Not sure how to answer this question. Nor am I sure that most Obama voters last year favored a political solution in Afghanistan. Remember, Obama ran on fighting a better, more effective war in Afghanistan, not on ending it. It was the Iraq war he talked about ending.

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New York: You're right that Pakistan is the bigger threat. But Obama offered nothing. No solutions at all for a dangerous, ungoverned, poltically unstable, unfriendly, nuclear armed Islamic failed state. He even seem to argue that we'd partner with them. Seems unlikely if they're the problem.

Robert G. Kaiser: I think he is afraid to talk frankly about Pakistan because the Pakistanis are hypersensitive to any suggestion that we have any influence over their decisions or behavior. It's an awful situation.

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Newport News, Va.: By announcing a date of withdrawal, didn't Obama signal his lack of commitment? It sounded like it to me. It was like he was reassuring everyone that he really doesn't want to do the job and will try to get it over as quickly as possible.

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks for posting...

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Vienna, Va.: Robert, I didn't see the speech (out with the family for dinner) so I will react instead to the canards being tossed out by the president's critics:

"Obama ran as a progressive who would get us the heck out of these foreign entanglements." No, he made it clear during the campaign he planned to increase forces in Afghanistan.

As for the "he should do whatever the general says" theory: George Patton may have been the greatest field general in American history. After Germany surrendered in WWII, Patton wanted to immediately attack the Soviet Union because they would become an inevitable adversary of the U.S. Should FDR or Truman had done that, just because Patton said so?

Didn't LBJ give Westmoreland what he wanted for quite some time in Vietnam? How'd that work out?

Robert G. Kaiser: and thanks for this.

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Robert G. Kaiser: Another fast-paced hour. Thanks to all for taking part. See you next time.

For the curious, our poll stayed close: 48% foresaw quagmire, 52% a reasonable ending.

So we're NOT united on that. Good night.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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