President Obama’s speeches are a lot like a Chinese dinner -- Tuesday night's West Point speech on Afghanistan was no exception. They consist of heaping helpings of impressive-sounding but empty phrases (“we will go forward with the confidence that right makes might and with the commitment to forge … a future that represents not the deepest of fears but the highest of hopes”). And an hour later, you’re left wondering what, exactly, he said he would  commit to (“The 30,000 additional troops that I'm announcing tonight will … help create the conditions for the United States to transfer responsibility to the Afghans.”).

Obama’s Afghanistan speech included several familiar menu selections:

The Appetizer

Predictable potshots at the Bush administration (“the decision to go into Iraq caused substantial rifts between America and much of the world”).

The Entrée

Mixed messages with which Obama can pivot in two directions at once:

- We must keep the pressure on Al Qaeda. And to do that, we must increase the stability and capacity of our partners in the region. But: We will remove our combat brigades from Iraq by the end of next summer and all of our troops by the end of 2011.

- [A]s commander-in-chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. But: After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home. … these additional American and international troops will allow us … to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011.

• [U]nlike the great power conflicts and clear lines of division that defined the 20th century, our effort will involve disorderly regions, failed states, diffuse enemies. But: I reject [a nation-building project that could last for up to a decade] because it sets goals that are beyond what can be achieved at a reasonable cost and what we need to achieve to secure our interests.

A Side Dish

Premature self-congratulation (“we are bringing the Iraq war to a responsible end”).


Unintentional laugh lines (“I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests” and “Our new approach in Afghanistan is likely to cost us roughly $30 billion for the military this year, and I'll work closely with Congress to address these costs as we work to bring down our deficit.”).

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