Stephen M. Walt

Instant analysis of Obama’s speech

Here’s my first reaction to Obama’s speech, as of 9:30 EST. I may change my mind after I read what others had to say, but we’ll see. The good news in President Obama’s West Point speech on Afghanistan is that he displayed an awareness of costs and benefits. Obama clearly understands that external events may ...

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Here’s my first reaction to Obama’s speech, as of 9:30 EST. I may change my mind after I read what others had to say, but we’ll see.

The good news in President Obama’s West Point speech on Afghanistan is that he displayed an awareness of costs and benefits. Obama clearly understands that external events may impinge on U.S. power, but our safety and security ultimately depends on prosperity here at home. That prosperity ultimately depends on education, infrastructure, financial soundness, and domestic tranquility — not on who happens to be in power in Central Asia — and Obama realizes that endless warfare is threatening these essential foundations of national power. He left little doubt that his real goal is to “nation-build” here in the United States, while letting the inhabitants of Central Asia take primary responsibility for their own affairs. That is a wise judgment, but it remains to be seen whether he will be able to put it into practice.

The bad news is that Obama’s explanation of his short-term decision was neither coherent nor convincing. With no good options before him, he went for the middle ground: We will escalate by sending 30,000 more troops but in eighteen months he’ll start bringing them home. The logic here is hard to discern: if the stakes are as important as he maintained, then setting a firm time limit makes little sense. Obama correctly refused to grant the corrupt Afghan government a “blank check,” but no serious analyst thinks we can train an Afghan army or create a strong Afghan state in a year and a half.  And if he is willing to cut Karzai & Co. off later, then success isn’t really a “vital national interest” after all. If that’s the case, why invest another $30 billion now? Nor did he explain how dispatching 30,000 more troops for eighteen months would eliminate al Qaeda’s safe havens or prevent them from making a comeback later on.

In short, Obama is betting that escalation will improve conditions enough to permit a rapid U.S. withdrawal in June 2011. He is rolling the “iron dice of war,” and the incoherence of his position suggests that the decision was driven more by domestic politics than by strategic necessity.  In any case, whether one opposes this decision (as I do) or not, we should all hope that his gamble succeeds.  

JIM WATSON/GETTY IMAGES

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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