1. Kind of a mishmash. Obama tries to go from the theme of ending one war (slowly, gradually, cautiously) to the broader theme of national and global renewal. It doesn’t really work, in my opinion. First because there’s still over a year’s worth of war, if a twilight and diminishing war, to be waged in Iraq; but more importantly, because he didn’t articulate a vision of how to end the threat from al-Qaeda, or at least diminish it to the point of sustained national vigilance as a law enforcement, intelligence, and diplomatic challenge. It’s that path, out of the World That 9/11 Gave Us, that gets to the sweeping-renewal theme that Obama ends the speech with. Without it, it’s… more war elsewhere, in an uncertain direction.
2. Really hard not to read the Afghanistan section as again trying to signal that the drawdowns in July 2011 will be more substantial than General Petraeus is indicating.
The pace of our troop reductions will be determined by conditions on the ground, and our support for Afghanistan will endure. But make no mistake: This transition will begin — because open-ended war serves neither our interests nor the Afghan people’s.
I recognize that at this point, we’re scouring both men’s statements for the slightest disharmonious notes. And the substantive differences between those guys are rather slim, as I’ve been reporting for weeks now. But as a matter of signaling, Obama is the one drawing the difference at this point. If open-ended war serves neither our interests nor the Afghan people’s, what about open-ended transition? Petraeus is much clearer about the contours of how he’ll structure drawdowns and troop redeployments. With these comments, Obama is setting himself up to have it both ways — we’re kind of starting to end the war but not before we win it, whatever that means; and the greater part of winning it may mean extrication; but not extrication without protecting our interests! — and accordingly getting blame from everyone.
The line “open-ended war serves neither our interests nor the Afghan people’s”? It’s a great, clear statement. But it has to be broader. It has to be an argument about actually ending the threat from al-Qaeda. We’re owed no less.
3. “I’m mindful that the Iraq war has been a contentious issue at home. Here, too, it’s time to turn the page.” Actually, he already has. From 2002 to 2008, the Iraq war was perhaps the most politically contentious issue in American public life. In February 2009, starting with the Camp LeJeune speech — pfft. It’s done. And it’s an unheralded political success. You read the Wolfowitz and Bolton op-eds today? Neither of them can really bite the bullet and say that we should remain in Iraq, waging a war, and so they strain to find an actual critique of Obama’s approach. They’re like the sort of arguments “against” the war that Tom Daschle or Dick Gephardt used to make — signaling they hate the president, fearful of getting on the wrong side of an issue.
If Obama hadn’t embraced Petraeus and Odierno, and let them basically spend 2009 without meaningful troop withdrawals, that might not have happened, and we might have been arguing about Iraq for the past 18 months — which is to say for the past eight uninterrupted years.
4. “Over the last decade, we’ve not done what’s necessary to shore up the foundations of our own prosperity. We 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.” Isolationism! I’m just waiting for some Washington wag to fret that a recognition that spending money on a war is less money to spend on domestic priorities is “Come Home, America” redux — from perhaps the most internationalist administration ever. Maybe that canard can finally die, and replaced by the grand strategy-making we deserve, which is first and foremost about prioritizing all national commitments.
5. My pal Eli Lake doesn’t buy that we’re going to be 100 percent out of Iraq by December 31, 2011. As I wrote before, it’s easy to envision some minor caveats to the withdrawal, but not a substantial American military commitment in Iraq. One message to the Iraqis from the speech is: Don’t bother asking, we’re not going back in. The speech may have been a mishmash, but Steve Clemons is right to observe that Obama wants to turn the page on Iraq as an issue for the military. Maybe Eli will be right, but the trajectory is down and out. I guess I could see a JSOC task force for al-Qaeda in Iraq and then marginal numbers of non-combat personnel — in fact, see Pentagon Mideast policy chief Colin Kahl for what that might look like — but we’re really on the periphery here. It would take a new president to re-ignite the Iraq war, and I suspect the country (including the military) wouldn’t stand for it.