Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Obama’s Afghan policy speech, designed to confound domestic opponents, is confusing Pakistan

A story out of Pakistan today shows that the rhetorical/policy trimming that marred President Obama’s Afghan escalation speech has done some damage to the prospects for the policy. The bottom line: the Pakistanis are not doing what we need them to do because they interpreted the escalation-plus-timeline as an indication of Obama’s irresolution. Or, as the ...

575502_091220_westpoint2.jpg
575502_091220_westpoint2.jpg
WEST POINT, NY - DECEMBER 01: U.S. President Barack Obama waves at the conclusion of his speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on December 1, 2009 in West Point, New York. President Obama laid out his plan for an initial increase of some 30,000 troops in an effort to eventually begin to transition U.S. forces out of Afghanistan starting in July 2011. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

A story out of Pakistan today shows that the rhetorical/policy trimming that marred President Obama's Afghan escalation speech has done some damage to the prospects for the policy. The bottom line: the Pakistanis are not doing what we need them to do because they interpreted the escalation-plus-timeline as an indication of Obama's irresolution. Or, as the reporter put it:

The core reason for Pakistan's imperviousness is its scant faith in the Obama troop surge, and what Pakistan sees as the need to position itself for a regional realignment in Afghanistan once American forces begin to leave."

A story out of Pakistan today shows that the rhetorical/policy trimming that marred President Obama’s Afghan escalation speech has done some damage to the prospects for the policy. The bottom line: the Pakistanis are not doing what we need them to do because they interpreted the escalation-plus-timeline as an indication of Obama’s irresolution. Or, as the reporter put it:

The core reason for Pakistan’s imperviousness is its scant faith in the Obama troop surge, and what Pakistan sees as the need to position itself for a regional realignment in Afghanistan once American forces begin to leave.”

This story provides a timely, if unfortunate, rebuttal to the president’s own efforts at post-speech spin control. Obama went on “60 Minutes” on Sunday to offer a vigorous defense of the West Pont speech.

What struck me was this exchange recorded in the transcript:

KROFT: The West Point speech was greeted it was a great deal of confusion.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I disagree with that statement.

KROFT: You do?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I absolutely do. 40 million people watched it. And I think a whole bunch of people understood what we intend to do.

KROFT: But it raised a lot of questions. Some people thought it was contradictory. That’s a fair criticism.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I don’t think it’s a fair criticism. The situation in Afghanistan is complex, and so people who are looking for simple black and white answers won’t get them. And the speech wasn’t designed to give those black and white answers.

Part of my job here, I believe, is to make sure that the American people understand what we’re getting into. What we where we’ve been and where we’re going. And they’re not simple. I think that what you may be referring to is the fact that on the one hand I said, “We’re gonna be sending in additional troops now.” On the other hand, “By July 2011, we’re gonna move into a transition phase where we’re drawing out troops down.”

KROFT: Right.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: There shouldn’t be anything confusing about that.

KROFT: Well–

PRESIDENT OBAMA: First of all, that’s something that we did in Iraq. And we executed over the last two years in Iraq. So, I think the American people are familiar with the idea of a surge.

In terms of the rationale for doing it, we don’t have an Afghan military right now, security force, that can stabilize the country. If we are effective over the next two years, by putting in these additional troops — clearing enough space and time for the Afghan security forces to get set up in an effective way — that then frees us up to transition into a place where we can start drawing down.

The alternative is to stand pat where we are, in which you never have a stable Afghan security force. And we are potentially signed up for being in Afghanistan for the next decade.

This is remarkable and a bit scary, because Obama’s defense is so fundamentally misleading. It is, if you will forgive the historical reference, a moment when President Obama channels the predecessor he usually avoids talking about, the one who answered a direct question with the memorable line: “It depends on what the meaning of the word is is.”

For let’s concede at the outset that President Obama, like President Clinton, may be technically correct. Because so many people watched the speech, and even more heard about the speech, it is almost a statistical certainty that “a whole bunch of people understood what [the Obama administration] intended to do,” especially if we accept a conventional interpretation of “whole bunch” to be in the hundreds, thousands, or even ten thousands.

But Kroft’s leading question is more honest than Obama’s response was, because the confusion arising out of Obama’s “deadline” was far, far more consequential than the statistical probability that some fraction of the audience got it.  For days after the speech, administration officials offered contradictory clarifications, with Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen clearly suggesting that the deadline was a token target that would not drive the withdrawal schedule and spokesman Gibbs talking about the deadline as “etched in stone.”

The policy compromise embodied in the speech and the underlying policy decision was in fact intended to square a number of circles. It was an escalation-with-a-prearranged-deadline-for-beginning-a-withdrawal-but-vagueness-about-how-fast-and-the-conditions-under-which-the-subsequent-withdrawal-would-happen sort of compromise.

It was designed to let administration hawks say we are in this war to win it and administration doves to say that we are not making an open-ended commitment to win this war. 

It was designed to split Obama’s opposition so that, as has happened, some Republicans praised the escalation part and other Republicans excoriated the artificial deadline part, and some anti-war Democrats bit their tongues over the escalation and clung bitterly to the artificial deadline while others saw the artificial deadline as a fiction and loudly denounced the escalation.

It was designed to confuse domestic political enemies and it achieved that goal. An unintended consequence was that it also confused international allies, as the Pakistan story makes clear. Reasonable people can debate whether President Obama had better options that were less confusing. Reasonable people can debate whether the benefits of the confusion outweigh the costs of the confusion. Reasonable people will conclude — and I am one of them — that on balance the speech and the underlying policy position were worth supporting.

But — and here is the absolutely crucial part — no reality-based observer can pretend that the speech and the underlying policy was not confusing. To pretend otherwise is either to peddle absurd spin or, worse, to be so infected with a bunker mentality that one is operating in a bubble.  

As a general rule, I don’t like media interpretations that reduce to “the president and the White House team are in a fantasy world bubble.” In my experience, that allegation has been leveled many times when I know for a fact that it has been untrue. But if the administration really believes that the “deadline” that is not really a deadline has not produced confusion at home and abroad, then I am hard-pressed to come up with explanations that do not mention bubbles.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

More from Foreign Policy

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Lessons for the Next War

Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.

An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse

Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.

An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.
An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol  January 8, 2009 in Washington.
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington.

Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.