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The 5 messages Obama’s speech sent to the world

By Will Inboden President Obama deserves our support for his wise and courageous decision on America’s Afghanistan policy. Embracing the counterinsurgency strategy recommended by Generals McChrystal and Petraeus and its corresponding substantial military force increase of 30,000 troops was a laudable act of principle, especially considering the tepid support among the general American public and ...

By , the executive director of the Clements Center for National Security and the author of The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink.
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U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about his decision to increase U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan by about 30,000 during a speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, on December 1, 2009. The buildup is targeted to reverse the Taliban advances in the country and to train Afghan soldiers and police. UPI/Roger L. Wollenberg

By Will Inboden

President Obama deserves our support for his wise and courageous decision on America's Afghanistan policy. Embracing the counterinsurgency strategy recommended by Generals McChrystal and Petraeus and its corresponding substantial military force increase of 30,000 troops was a laudable act of principle, especially considering the tepid support among the general American public and the outright opposition of most Democrats. As Peter Feaver and many others have observed, Obama's speech itself was rather anemic and an inartful reminder of the political calculations and ambivalence which color his national security policy as he continues to grapple with embracing his role as a wartime president. But when it came to the hard crucible of making the decision, in this vital case he did the right thing.

By Will Inboden

President Obama deserves our support for his wise and courageous decision on America’s Afghanistan policy. Embracing the counterinsurgency strategy recommended by Generals McChrystal and Petraeus and its corresponding substantial military force increase of 30,000 troops was a laudable act of principle, especially considering the tepid support among the general American public and the outright opposition of most Democrats. As Peter Feaver and many others have observed, Obama’s speech itself was rather anemic and an inartful reminder of the political calculations and ambivalence which color his national security policy as he continues to grapple with embracing his role as a wartime president. But when it came to the hard crucible of making the decision, in this vital case he did the right thing.

There are many others who can comment on the details of the new policy and what it might mean for Afghanistan. But almost as important is how the rest of the world will perceive the new policy. In a column last week, Roger Cohen cited an observation by Henry Kissinger that “[Obama] reminds me of a chess grandmaster who has played his opening in six simultaneous games. But he hasn’t completed a single game and I’d like to see him finish one.” 

While the Afghanistan board is far from complete, in this case the President has made an audacious new move. To pick up on the Kissinger chessboard analogy (and to invoke a favorite geopolitical theme of Kissinger’s), the six games are not being played separately but rather are all linked to each other. A move on one board often will carry significant ramifications for the state of play on the other boards, and will send important signals to the opposing players on each board.    

So what are the messages that Obama’s speech sends to other important parts of the world, including ones where he has taken new steps?

To the nations of western Europe, the new policy shows a willingness to try to lead public opinion (and not just follow it) for a mission vital to national security, and to make a substantial troop deployment committed to taking the fight to the enemy. In light of the unwillingness thus far of many NATO members to increase their force deployments in Afghanistan, and the reluctance of some to even let their troops engage in combat, this is significant. Since European public opinion still remains largely opposed to the war in Afghanistan but the new strategy calls for another 5,000 NATO troops, President Obama might want to consider deploying his own considerable popularity by making a similar speech in Europe urging more force contributions from NATO members. Perhaps when he travels to Oslo next week to accept his Nobel Peace Prize?

To China, where in the wake of Obama’s recent trip the government in Beijing may be questioning his general resolve, the new policy demonstrates an ability to make hard choices that risk his reputation and carry real costs. It also reinforces for Beijing that south and central Asia remain regions of profound strategic interest to the United States. These will be helpful reminders for China as the Obama Administration continues to press it to play a constructive role on other priority issues such as the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs.

To Iran, where the Obama administration faces an acute challenge on the nuclear program, the policy demonstrates a willingness to use force if necessary to protect America’s security interests. Ironically, it is sometimes just this type of willingness that strengthens diplomatic efforts and renders the use of force itself unnecessary.

To India (from where I write this week), the policy displays a renewed commitment to an American presence in a troubled region, and to finishing hard tasks. But as numerous Indian policy leaders privately said today, the announced date of July 2011 to begin troop withdrawals undercuts this message and renews fears of American fickleness, of the type that led to American disengagement from Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 1990s, with disastrous results. David Ignatius today called this “the weak link in an otherwise admirable decision — the idea that we strengthen our hand by announcing in advance that we plan to fold it.”

To Pakistan, the new policy will hopefully signal to government and citizens alike that the United States is committed to defeating the Taliban and al Qaeda and to the sustained promotion of stable, secure, and free self-government in the region. This should give Pakistanis the additional assurance and incentives they need to make the right choices to side against jihadism and with efforts for reform, development, and responsible governance. Though again, in Pakistani minds these incentives might be mitigated by fears of the July 2011 drawdown date and yet another case of U.S. abandonment. 

The hardest days in Afghanistan lie ahead, and the Obama administration will face grave challenges and choices in many other areas, some known and others unknown. But at this point at least, Obama has decided on a policy that is best for American security interests not only in Afghanistan but in other places around the globe.

Roger L. Wollenberg-Pool/Getty Images

Will Inboden is the executive director of the Clements Center for National Security and an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, both at the University of Texas at Austin, a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, and the author of The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink.

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