Shadow Government

After the speech, only more questions

President Obama’s speech was a jumble of internal contradictions. On the one hand, the president rightly said that there would be no safe haven "from which al Qaida or its affiliates can launch attacks against our homeland or our allies." But he also said that after the initial reduction of 33,000 troops, "our troops will continue coming ...

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President Obama’s speech was a jumble of internal contradictions. On the one hand, the president rightly said that there would be no safe haven "from which al Qaida or its affiliates can launch attacks against our homeland or our allies." But he also said that after the initial reduction of 33,000 troops, "our troops will continue coming home at a steady pace … [and] by 2014, this process of transition will be complete." He gave no indication that a significant force, or indeed any U.S. force, would remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014.

The president asserted that "so long as I am president, the United States will never tolerate a safe haven for those who aim to kill us." To this end he promised to work with the government of Pakistan, and to hold Islamabad to its "commitments." Ronald Reagan wisely counseled that "presidents should never say never." Obama evidently is prepared to ignore that advice. Has Pakistan in fact promised to make its territory available for drone strikes for the indefinite future? How exactly will the president keep his pledge if Pakistan refuses to let us operate drones against safe havens on its territory? 

The president stated unequivocally that "those who want to be a part of a peaceful Afghanistan must break from al Qaeda, abandon violence, and abide by the Afghan constitution." Yet he also said that "America will join initiatives that reconcile the Afghan people, including the Taliban." Does that mean that the Taliban need not meet the president’s conditions before the United States was prepared to include the Taliban? And if not, why is the United States talking to the Taliban today?

The president has proposed a $400 billion cut in defense spending, to take place over the next ten years, over and above the $87 billion that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates cut from the Army’s Future Combat Systems program. A major reason for the size of the defense budget is the entitlements — health and retirement benefits in particular — that are part of the military’s compensation package. Yet the president promised the U.S. military that "we will keep our sacred trust with you and provide you with the care and benefits and opportunity that you deserve." Does that mean that benefits will not be cut, and if so, will the $400 billion reduction be drawn solely from the investment accounts — the key to the U.S. winning its future wars? 

Finally, the president sounded like a good realist when he stated "we must be as pragmatic as we are passionate" when "confronting every evil that can be found abroad." Yet at the same time, while defending what can at best be termed a highly opaque policy regarding U.S. operations in Libya, the president did not explain why U.S. military assets have been deployed to Libya but not to Syria.

The president is a master orator, and his speech once again displayed his talents in this regard. It raised more questions than it answered, however. As a result, it will serve only to confuse our coalition partners, complicate our relations with Pakistan, and further confound an already bewildered and war-weary American people. 

Dov Zakheim is the former Under Secretary of Defense.

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