Americans can be forgiven for wondering what exactly was offered up by their president as he announced his timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan Wednesday night. Quite naturally they would anticipate an update on progress made in the year and a half since he announced deployment of the surge – albeit half of the forces requested by his battlefield commander.
On that count, President Obama delivered as expected, reporting success and announcing the withdrawal of surge forces over the next year. That 30-second bit of information could have capably been delivered from the White House press podium or in a brief televised update from the Oval Office (which this president -- unlike all recent predecessors -- oddly seems to avoid).
Instead, the president chose to use the East Room of the White House to offer a fairly simple campaign speech, not a war update or national security strategy.
The construct is fairly straight forward – cite 9/11 post-trauma unity, blame Bush for breaking the country and the world, favorably review previously announced policy, minimize threats to America abroad, and refocus on revolution at home.
Obama cannot be blamed for misleading America. His call tonight to “wind down this war” and “focus on nation building here at home” comes straight out of the 2008 campaign. This is what you should expect when a community organizer is commander in chief.
The question we need to ask the president, and ourselves, is whether his medicine will cure or simply sedate the patient.
On Afghanistan, few dispute that progress has been made. But is that progress reversible if the troop surge that delivered the progress is reduced too quickly? Americans do want to know how the war will conclude, but most seek a definition of success that comes with reassurance that the cancer will not come back, requiring another major U.S. military commitment. The president did not offer that reassurance.
On Pakistan, the most dangerous and expensive U.S. alliance in the world, the president offered little. He will continue to “insist” that Pakistan keep its commitments, and promises that “the United States will never tolerate a safe-haven for those who aim to kill us.”
Unaddressed, however, is the inconvenient truth that our Pakistani allies appear to have done exactly that with Usama bin Laden. Yes, he is dead, but the factors that led to his several years of safe harbor in Pakistan have not been reversed.
On Libya, the president’s greatest miscarriage of justice and military strategy to date, he sees only the model of international intervention with no U.S. troops on the ground. Absent from his account of the model he touts is recognition that his strategy is not working.
Obama calls on Qaddafi to go, offers encouragement to the opposition, but fails to ensure the rebels have the means to succeed in doing the job themselves – no U.S. diplomatic recognition, no access to Qaddafi’s frozen assets, no training or equipping opposition forces. This is not a model worthy of praise in Libya or to be followed anywhere else.
But these points take the president’s remarks too seriously as a foreign policy discourse. What Wednesday night's remarks really amounted to was a campaign speech, with Mr. Obama blaming his predecessor for the mess left on his doorstep, retreating from leadership in the world, and calling for major change at home. As with the economy, so too with war.
Obama promised more when he was still seeking the Oval Office. Americans should expect more from their commander in chief.
Stephen Yates was a deputy national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney. Follow him on Twitter @YatesDCIA.