Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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The Ariel Versus the Caliban

The Ariel-in-Chief and scourge of the Taliban tonight:  "America, we are passing through a time of great trial. And the message that we send in the midst of these storms must be clear: that our cause is just, our resolve unwavering. We will go forward with the confidence that right makes might and with the commitment to forge an America that is safer, a world that is more secure, and a future that represents not the deepest of fears but the highest of hopes" (emphasis added)  Was ever pseudo-Lincolnian rhetoric put to more quavering use?  When Lincoln spoke of right making might in concluding his Cooper Union address, no one would (or should) have taken him for some silly sap.  With Obama it just doesn't work--but I pray I am proven wrong, just as Seward et al. were. 
Categories > Presidency

Discussions - 25 Comments

Actually, I thought the opening and the closing were the strongest parts of the speech. I was almost ready to like the thing as far as about a third of the way into it . . . I appreciated the introduction where he attempted--or seemed to attempt--to review our reasons for the fight and to attempt to give an explanation of our continued need for it. But that was just it. He did well with the first charge . . . and rather dropped the ball on the second. THEN, instead of going on with another attempt to inspire, he went on to give us several paragraphs laden with "I's" and "Me's" . . . a kind of self-justification explaining his delays and answering critics in such a way that, were his claims legitimate, should have been beneath the dignity of the office. Finally, his charge at the end when he laid out the anticipated reasons for disapproving of his plan was not only unseemly in the context . . . it was disingenuous. He conflated objections to laying out a time-table for the enemy to see with Utopian designs for nation-building. Perhaps there are some who have a foot in both of those camps . . . but it not accurate to suggest that they are one in the same objection.

I would not mind being a Seward in this instance either . . . the thing about Seward was that he changed his mind when events--and, above all, the man--proved him wrong. I should like to be proven wrong about Obama--at least with respect to his handling of our international interests. Events may compel Obama to more greatness than this speech gives us any reason to hope might be in him . . . but if continues to demonstrate the kind of knee-jerk self-justificatory whines this thing contained, he will look even weaker than his harshest critics now suggest.

It is too bad . . . mainly because I think there were moments in this thing where he was on to the right sentiment and nearly got there. And while I appreciate his Lincoln-like dilemma in needing to carve out a kind of unity on behalf of America in the midst of an amazing array of contradictory and polarized factions, he could not carry off the role of moderator of these passions. He showed his cards one too many times. He put politics above his principle and spent too much time in CYA. That is the mark of a mere politician . . . not a statesman.

This is going to explode some right-wing heads. They love war and troop escalations, but hate Obama. What to do, what to do???

This is going to explode some left-wing heads. They hate war and troop escalations, but love Obama. What to do, what to do???

I thought most of the speech was good. And surprisingly, he softened the Iraq bad/Afghanistan good rhetoric. It was there, but not with the full-blown braggadocio that it used to be. I can't imagine a sensible conservative not being behind this, and while the speech wasn't perfect, it was still good.

Scanlon, I think your comment reflects a defect in the liberal mind more than anything. Folks here generally give credit where credit is due.

We are going to hold our collective breath and hope he doesn't change his mind. Of course, he may have a deal with Democrats in Congress not to fund his plan. That way he can look presidential and hard-line and they will cover for him with his base. He can appear to be a stateman; he has plenty of time to arrange the politics one way or another. NPR was all about the possibility that Congress would not follow through with funding because they are folks of high principle.

The proper nuance in dealing with the tenuous relationship between this speech and the policy it proposes is found in Mac Owens,
and Wheat and Weeds,
You can punish Caliban if you come off like Tinker Bell.

Kate, ugh...what a foul underlying scent does NPR try to cover over with its urbane perfumes...high-minded!...and yet of course you're right to try to catch the shifting winds of the Democratic Party's spirit there. Remind me again though, why do my tax dollars support them?

As for the speech, which as important as it was Julie AS a speech, was a speech about DEEDS to be done, and the strategic ENDS of these deeds, and about our COMMITMENT to these deeds and ends. Well, besides noting that it was very thin on describing those, let us note two of the speech's key elements, and the fact that they don't really go together.

"18 months"

"must keep the pressure on Al Quaida"

Hmm...if we must keep the Taliban from defacto ruling the Afghan countryside, if we are to keep the pressure on Al Qaida so as to prevent attacks on us, then doesn't the average Afghan need to get a pretty strong sense that we''ve committed ourselves to keep the country out of the Taliban's hands and to their security from its depredations? Obama pledges to the Afghanis that he doesn't want to rule them, but does he pledge to them that, within the limits of his oath and dependent upon him being re-elected, he will use our troops to protect them from the Taliban? Does he say, "join us, help us, and I will do all I can to stick it out with you for the remainder of my time in office?" And Obama is just the sort who could qualify this appropirately--i.e., "I will do all I can given the checks and balances that can be employed against me in our democratic system," "I will do all I can WITH THIS MANY TROOPS, THIS MUCH MONEY.," "I pledge myself to do all this SO LONG AS Karazai and co. do x,y, p, and q."

He did not make any such pledges. So what he really said, contra counter-insurgency 101 is this: "Afghans, help us fight the Taliban. Give us info. Join the armies, institutions, and schools we'll be helping your govt. to set up. Maybe even run for office. We'll be around in force for 18 months. Probably. Let me be clear."

And finally, did anyone hear in this speech an effort to vividly remind Americans that we are still at war? Yes, he was good on reminding us of the Al Qaida threat, but somehow, the feeling that a great effort of national self-sacrifice is upon us was not there.

Deeds promised. Ends defined. Limits and the possibility of failure nonetheless acknowledged. Commitment and a strong desire for Victory signalled. We didn't really get this from our president last night.

Whatever leverage his caginess gives our diplomats with Karzai and co., it will not really revivify or sustain the morale of our troops, and it will not give average Afghanis adequate reason to bet against the Taliban in the long term.

Sadly, hat tip to Wheat in the Weeds, this is the song of the hour: "Hello, I Must Be Going"

Best not to flounder.

Craig, the question can reversed. I agree though, its an interesting thing.

Some thoughts on the speech,

1. Obama has a fetish for arbitrary deadlines. Remember the summer deadline for the House of Reps passing Obamacare? That didn't mean he was going to quit trying to take over the healthcare just because the deadline was missed. On the other hand, there is no doubt about Obama's determination to win on healthcare.

2. There was alot unsaid in last night's speech. The first was how the depth of American difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan was largely caused by a failure to adopt counterinsurgency techniques with sufficient speed and resources. The linkage between Obama's opposition to the counterinsurgency approach in Iraq, and the reasons why he thought it would fail, and the adoption of that same approach in Afghanistan made for some of the speech's weird ambivalence.

3. But most conservative supporters of the American efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan need to find a language for the EXTENT of the damage to America (in lives, a strained military, domestic division, weakened influence over other hostile regimes) by the Bush administration's wishful thinking and under resourcing in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the willful refusal to significantly increase the size of the ground forces in 2002-2006. These failures make Cheney and Rove very problematic spokesmen for opposition to Obama policies.

Pete, on 2, did he really adopt a counterinsurgency approach in the speech? If so, it was so quick that if you blinked you missed it.

More seriously, I've been thinking about Kate's report of possible Democratic Congress moves to vote down funding for the Afghan surge.

My initial reaction to that report was repugnance, but having thought a bit more, and about how uneasy Obama's speech makes me, I'm wondering whether conservatives should urge their Republican reps to vote with such a Democratic Congressional opposition to the war, assuming it does emerge.

My reluctant reasoning is as follows:

Proposition One: the Obama strategy, as announced, is more likely to fail than not. Why? A) A general sense from the speech and past speeches/actions that he doesn't really want to win, that everything said is to be subjected to regular reappraisal and weaslely re-interpretation as needed. B) The largely unexplained promise(?) to withdraw(all? just the 30,000?) in 18 months, which as stands, is harmful to our troop morale and fatal to gaining cooperation from ordinary Afghans.

Proposition Two: A) "More likely than not to fail" is unnacceptable odds. A clearly ennuniciated strategic retreat (perhaps keeping Kabul) with warnings to Taliban of consequences if they aid attacks against us, is better for our interests. B) The horrors that will come with the likely reinstitution of the Taliban regime in much of the country will be excrutiating, but this will come anyway, albeit more gradually, if we drift into failure. The blood and the betrayal of many an implicit promise to the Afghans will be on our American hands, and arguably on our American conservative hands even more so, but so be it as the lesser of evils.

That is, in this situation, BOTH "All in" and "Fold" are better than "Half in." Obama is far more half-in than all-in at present.

Proposition Three: President Obama could give a much firmer assurance, albeit still provisional given the democratic nature of our system, that he will pursue a counter-insurgency victory-seeking war of indefinite duration during his term. The mere prospect of a Republican "opposition to a half-assed war" joined in Congress with a Democratic "opposition to war in general," can pressure our commander-in-chief to more forcefully and less ambiguously articulate the war's goals and his commitments to it.

What do people think of this? Is it a good position to take? Is an anti-funding vote even likely to have immediate effect? Can we responsibly play political chicken this way with funds for troops?

But how can we not try to oppose the McNamara of our time, if that's what we honestly think his strategic leadership amounts to?

Carl, Obama never said counterinsurgency that I can remember but that is what McChrystal wanted the extra troops and I presume that Obama will allow McChrystal the flexibility to use the troops to separate the most radical of the Taliban from the population, try to split the reconcilable from those that have to be killed, help reconnect the locals to the central government (though the balance will probably be idfferent than in Iraq) and a bunch of other stuff that will be driven by local conditions. If not, then Obama deserves condemnation.

I too really wish Obama had not included a timetable., but Obama has shown real flexibility when it comes to timestables and such. In 2007 he was talking about getting US troops out of Iraq by 2008 (if memory serves), but it is 2009 and he is planning to keep troops thee until 2011. If we think he really is the McNamara of our time, then we are just srewed. In the meantime, I think conservatives should praise what is best in his policies, and point out where he could do better. I think that conservative voting as a bloc against funding the extra troops would be a disaster for the country.

Pro-Pete Carl: Treat President Obama well on this, criticize fairly yet lightly, and he will migrate of necessity toward our positions, far enough to let McChrystal do the right thing and win. Since this is the case, my wavering above is my lack of trust in Obama getting transmuted into de facto defeatism.
Also, when I was a Democrat, I remember how angered I was by the conservatives who stoutly opposed the war with Serbia. They seemed to be betraying their principles and tendencies simply because they hated Clinton and wanted political advantage. We will activate that anger on the part of moderate Dems and especially blacks if we fiddle with temporary alliance with the far-left on funding votes.

Anti-Pete Carl: Another name for "flexibility" on sternly announced timetables is untrustworthiness. Conservatives are going to be accused of Obama-hatred no matter what.
The strategy as announced won't work, for the reasons given. No McChrystal magic or military might can undo the verbal undercutting of the basic mission by the President. This likelihood is clear enough now, and we can't afford an "in the meantime" period of hoping Obama turns out to be more reasonable. We betray an irresponsible desire to appear nice if we cannot act on what has become clear about the President and this policy. We really are screwed in Afghanistan, but there is a way to be less screwed there and for less time. Moreover, the gambit of threatening to join the anti-funding votes of the lefties MIGHT push Obama to do the right thing, and then conservatives could rally round the President's policy. If an actual vote against funding went forward, a great constitution-invigorating precedent against McNamarite psuedo-solutions being foisted on the nation by Imperial/Rhetorical Presidents would be set.

I agree with Pete re: funding. But I'd add that conservatives, in praising what is good about Obama, should do so in such a way as to push him closer to their views if possible, also, if possible to distinguish themselves from him for the electorate.


1. I think that conservatives should support Obama to the extent that we agree with him for two reasons. First, because it is the right thing to do. Second, because if we don't support him when he agrees with us and takes on his base, we risk a worse policy outcome on that issue. We should entertain no hopes that by supporting him when we agree with him, that he will be more likely to agree with us.

2. I'm not sure that the announcement of a timetable is as fatal to success as you think. the main drivers for a quick US withdrawal seem to be neither the size of the American force in the country, nor even the duration of the operation per se. The main drivers seem to be the number of US casualties and the sense of futility that comes with seeing the insurgents controlling much of the country and governance disintegrating. If, by early 2011, those two negatives have diminished, the pressure for a speedy withdrawal might abate. There might even develop a broad consensus (from the center-left on rightwards) against a premature withdrawal. Thats kinda what happened in Iraq. There is actually less political pressure for a speedy bugout now than 30 months ago - not that the war is popular - and this was caused by changes on the ground. The most important thing now is what happens in Afghanistan between now and the summer of 2011. If a counterinsurgency strategy can make visible gains by mid 2011, there is, based on history, reason to hope that Obama will not risk his reelection by snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

Pete, for various reasons, my mind does not agree with your #1, although logical calculation aside, my heart feels/agrees that it is the right thing to do.

Your #2 is difficult to argue against, in terms of American morale. Still, so much depends on Obama's commitment and leadership...and the real question, I think, is Afghan morale.

I guess my idea cannot even convince myself, but pro-surge conservatives do need to mentally and emotionally prepare themselves, if it really begins to appear that we can't win with this commander-in-chief and his caveats, to accept that losing via withdrawal is better than losing in a drawn out way.

Driving around, listening to the radio today, all of the military guys, Gates, McChrystal & Petraeus were saying today that the timetable was not not really a deadline (as in please, don't be silly, we would not cut & run) and that the US would see the job through. I felt pretty good about that.

Not that "seeing the job through" really must involve endless military action, but that neither would we leave Afghanistan or Iraq to the violent among them, for pity's sake. Listening, I thought that good sense must prevail, heard Rush ranting for awhile and got worried, and then decided roughly what I find Pete saying in #2 right above about Obama looking to the next election. Surely, Obama does not wish to be held responsible for either American defeat or having Afghanistan become something like Somalia has been or worse.

However, now I read this:
and get to worrying again.

I don't see how Republicans cannot back the president on this. The rhetoric for "the right thing to do even if it is difficult" has to be better than any available alternative. Ultimately, most Democrats in Congress will back this so as not to weaken the president, upset a pro-military public and because for enough of them, it is the right/best way to go. For those who have left-ish constituencies, they can probably afford to dissent and vote against funding, knowing that more conservative Democrats and the Republicans will carry the president's water for him and not leave our military in the nasty alternative spot. Don't you think re-election for 90% of Congress would be unlikely if they did not fund our soldiers?

I think there has been an 18 month timetable for the past five years.

You may be right.

Here's a blistering Andrew McCarthy assesment of Obama's untrustworthiness on this, his deliberately vague/contradictory war aims, and how conservatives are in various ways being "snowed" by him, and otherwise blindly walking into a no-win situation on this. It is worthwhile on those topics especially, even though I think McCarthy's presentation of Obama as an Alinksyite radical ulitmately seeking to get rid of capitalism is wrong, riddled with way over-interpreted "evidence," and a very pre-1989 way to think. (Not to mention a way of thinking that usually makes those who buy into it unable to hold civil public discourse with their fellow citizens.) But isn't he right about the no-win situation this half-assed war puts non-isolationist troop-supporting conservatives in?

I'm not there yet, but I'm getting the template for the bumper-sticker ready: SUPPORT THE TROOPS: NO FUNDS FOR A WAR OBAMA IS NOT REALLY FOR



Carl, If we take McCarthy seriously that Obama is an Alinskyite radical whose military plans are just distractions (and militarily doomed ones at that) from his desire to destroy the American system from the inside, the conservatives would be obligated to oppose any military operations conducted by such a dangerous President. But thats just as nuts as those 1960s Birchers who concluded that the US government was run by communists and thereby opposed any US government military activity against the communists because since the government was communist-run, then any government military action against the communists was a disguised government conspiracy to blah blah blah.

I think that Obama's ambivalence is best explained by a combination of skepticism that a counterinsurgency will succeed, wariness about crossing his ideological allies and fear that Afghanistan might sink his domestic agenda, even as he knows that it would be a terrible thing for Afghanistan to again become an Al-Qaeda client state. Those are good reasons to t wish Obama wasn't President, but they aren't reasons to oppose him when, contrary to his instincts, he announces a military strategy against America's enemies that most conservatives would MOSTLY support if it had been proposed by one of our own.

You raise a good point about Afghan morale. But I think that the most important factor in Afghan morale will not be parsing what Obama means by timetables, but what actually happens in Afghanistan in 2010 and the first half of 2011. If the populations perception of day-to-day safety improves and governance (maybe mostly at the village, tribal and provincial level) also improves, Afghan moral should also improve - and put less pressure on Obama to order a premature pullout. The key will be the US military's ability to separate the insurgents from the population and tie them to local security structures and the central government. It is a tall order and the timetable doesn't help, but what the US military actually does will be more important than Obama's unwisely stated timetable.

May it be so, Pete. And if the WH doesn't meddle with the day-to-day operations, even after a dramatic US troop loss, say 20 troops or more, I guess things will go as you say. I concede your arguments are the better so far, as things stand. Mighty nervous, though.

It's fine to bring up the Bircher comparison w/ McCarthy, since he's shamefully on this conspiratorial Alinskyite kick, but not with me. McCarthy is saying: devious overall Obama plan = deliberate half-assedness in fighting the war. I'm saying: tempermental/situation-shaped Obama shortcomings = unintended half-assedness in fighting the war. It's the bad recipe of a McClellan-esque wavering in the commander-in-chief and a Lincolnian determination in the top general. And I don't need a conspiracy to convince me that we've got tempermental and Democratic-party-driven wavering in Obama.

And for what it's worth, if a McCain or a Romney had made that speech, after that decision process, I think I'd still be mulling over the possibilities of conservatives temporarily joining the peace-nik Dems in opposing the war.

Half-measures in war are frightening. To have enough military to keep the situation really hot, but not enough to resolve the conflict does seem foolish. Perhaps what Obama is facing is that there is no good way out of this war at this time. There will be a good way out in 18 monhts, at this point sounds like wishful thinking, but might be true. I would suggest that we have been wanting to get out since shortly after we got in, which is why Brutus' comment seems apropos.

As if in answer -- David Brooks & pretty good:

With his two surges, Obama will more than double the number of American troops in Afghanistan. As Andrew Ferguson of The Weekly Standard pointed out, he is the first Democratic president in 40 years to deploy a significant number of troops into a war zone.

Those new troops are not themselves a strategy; they are enablers of an evolving strategy.

Carl, never compared you or anything you wrote to the birchers and I apologize if I left that impression. I actually share most of your concerns. I'm not nearly as confident as my comments might lead you to believe, I just think that given the choices, supporting what Obama announced and the team he has in place to carry it out (Gates, McChrystal, ect.) is the best way to go. I also worry about what happens on a day that there is a large troop loss and Obama gets poll numbers that put his overall job approval in the low 40s.

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