When withdrawal is a big step forward: reflections on Obama’s Afghanistan drawdown remarks

When withdrawal is a big step forward: reflections on Obama’s Afghanistan drawdown remarks

President Obama announced Wednesday that 33,000 American soldiers would be coming home from Afghanistan by next summer. The address was carefully calibrated. There was something in it for left and right, hawks and doves. Accordingly, in the wake of the speech, everyone grumbled. John Boehner asserted that Congress would hold the president accountable if progress were reversed because we were pulling out too precipitously. Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz complained the draw down was not fast enough. Vali Nasr, formerly an aide to Richard Holbrooke at the State Department, doubted whether real progress could be made on security issues at any speed and wished there were more focus on diplomatic solutions.

While my own preference would be for a faster exit than described, the specific number chosen will, in the long run be forgotten by history. It is only an indication of a temporary, transitional condition. Instead, we should look to the bigger implications of the speech — its larger messages.

First, more important than the specific number the president chose is the trend it reflects, the bigger policy decision that has been taken. The die is cast. The troops are coming home. America’s longest war will come to an end soon. The president ratcheted up the forces, they are at peak strength now, and that will soon start to change. A decade of major wars is coming to a close.

This is tied to the Obama’s second major point: America’s attention must now turn to nation-building at home. The president seemed at greater ease with the message he was delivering in this section of his speech; it seemed to flow more naturally than the justifications concerning troop strengths. It was clear he understands that our most crucial national security concerns lie within our own borders — not threats from fundamentalists… but from lousy economic fundamentals.

This point is even more important than the first, as it is indicative of a crucial fact: America’s foreign policy from this day forward is more likely to be driven the consequences of the economic crises of the past several years than it is by those associated with 9/11.

Finally, there was one more major message in Obama’s speech that was highlighted to me in a conversation with a senior White House official shortly after it concluded. The president, he observed, was keeping his word. As he had done with Iraq, as he had done with regard to shifting our security focus in the region to Afghanistan and Pakistan, as he had done with regard to his promise to do whatever needed to be done to get Osama bin Laden, Barack Obama was sending a message to allies and enemies alike: He keeps his word.  He does what he says he is going to do.

The president rightly recognizes that America’s influence around the world depends more on his credibility than it does the precise number of troops we have deployed anywhere. That credibility has been under siege for years. It was not helped by the misrepresentations of the George W. Bush years or the failures of our economic system during the recent crisis.

And while "Goldilocks solutions" like a troop withdrawal that is not too high or too low tend to leave major segments of the population disgruntled, nothing does the kind of damage that lies and deception do. The wars that are now ending in the Middle East were started by lies and prolonged by misstatements. They are now being ended by a guy who was elected to bring them to conclusion.

Try as the president’s opponents in next year’s elections might to quibble with his tactics, they will find that this last point — in conjunction with the shifting priorities reflected in the other aspects of last night’s speech — may prove to be this president’s most formidable advantage.

Imagine: a president who actually does what he said he was going to do. It’s the kind of thing that makes withdrawals, like those announced Wednesday night, a sign of strength.