Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Quit picking on Obama’s ode to ambivalence

My hawkish friends are picking on Obama’s speech. It didn’t stir them. News flash, fellas: It wasn’t meant to. He wasn’t speaking to you all, or to me. In fact, he likely is mighty tired of listening to Afghanistan hawks, having spent much of the last three months with them. In defense intellectual terms, this ...

576053_091202_RicksObamaWestpoint2.jpg
576053_091202_RicksObamaWestpoint2.jpg

My hawkish friends are picking on Obama's speech. It didn't stir them.

News flash, fellas: It wasn't meant to. He wasn't speaking to you all, or to me. In fact, he likely is mighty tired of listening to Afghanistan hawks, having spent much of the last three months with them. In defense intellectual terms, this homily was written for Andrew Bacevich and Richard Kohn, not for Eliot Cohen and Tom Donnelly and Peter Feaver, to name a few of the usual suspects.  

My hawkish friends are picking on Obama’s speech. It didn’t stir them.

News flash, fellas: It wasn’t meant to. He wasn’t speaking to you all, or to me. In fact, he likely is mighty tired of listening to Afghanistan hawks, having spent much of the last three months with them. In defense intellectual terms, this homily was written for Andrew Bacevich and Richard Kohn, not for Eliot Cohen and Tom Donnelly and Peter Feaver, to name a few of the usual suspects.  

This speech was an ode to ambivalence, an aria of ambiguity, a rasher of reluctance. It was addressed to those who, like him, really didn’t want to send more troops to Afghanistan. It was for those who care more about rebuilding New Orleans than Kandahar or Mosul. He was explaining to them why he was breaking with them. He had after great deliberation concluded that it was necessary to escalate.    

To really get this speech, I think you had to be someone who voted for Obama, who believed he was elected to end our wars, and was feeling terribly and personally disappointed with the president over the possibility of a surge in Afghanistan — and the failure to close Guantanamo, and the lift the ban on gays in the military, not to mention the bailout of Wall Street fatcats. Hence the explicit discussion of the Vietnam analogy, and the review of the folly of invading Iraq in 2003. (But why deliver it at West Point, where ambiguity is not a core Army value? That probably was a mistake.)

Seen in that context, these are the three most important quotes in last night’s speech:

First, there are those who suggest that Afghanistan is another Vietnam… I believe this argument depends upon a false reading of history.”

 

I’m mindful of the words of President Eisenhower, who, in discussing our national security, said, ‘Each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration:  the need to maintain balance in and among national programs.’ Over the past several years, we have lost that balance. We’ve failed to appreciate the connection between our national security and our economy.”

And, given what I think was the purpose of the speech, this was the best line:

That’s why our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended: because the nation that I am most interested in building is our own.”

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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