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Reaction to Obama's Afghanistan Plan
Comment
December 4, 2009

Though the basic facts of President Obama's plan for Afghanistan leaked to the press well before his official speech on December 1, the President's address gave analysts, pundits and reporters plenty to chew on for the rest of the week. Obama laid out a broad outline of a plan — the United States will commit an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, hoping a quick infusion of force will turn the tide of the conflict in favor of President Karzai's shaky central government. If everything goes according to plan, the extra force will create enough security for the central government to train its military and provide adequate security. But, the President stated, because the U.S. should not commit to an open-ended conflict, the troops will begin coming home in 2011, just 18 months after being deployed.

Reactions to the speech
The reaction across the Web has been mixed. Whether they supported Obama's plan or not, many commentators seemed to think his rhetoric was notably subdued for a major escalation of war.

Some, like Ross Douthat at the NEW YORK TIMES, wanted more fire, "I think escalation is probably the right decision, but I'm by no means certain about it. So I wanted the President to raise my confidence level last night."

Writing at the NEW YORK POST, Rich Lowry, who approved of sending more troops but not the withdrawal date, wrote, "Barack Obama made his debut as a war president last night — and didn't inspire confidence, but almost a sinking feeling."

Douthat and Lowry both argued that in a time of war, the President's rhetoric should be more triumphant, but conservative commentator David Frum thought Obama's tone was appropriate. Responding to the many conservative voices that wanted Obama to invoke more of Churchill's "Blood, sweat tears and toil," Frum argues in THE WEEK, that a "Churchillian" speech wouldn't have been appropriate:
Churchill's great speeches of 1940-41 were delivered at the most desperate moment in his country's history. Their grandeur suited the uniquely fateful occasion. But let's please underscore that word 'uniquely.'

America's situation in Afghanistan in 2009 in no way resembles that of Britain's in 1940. The problem is not that we confront some overwhelming adversary — or that key leaders are fearfully contemplating capitulation to a new world empire. The problem is that a lot of Americans doubt whether success in Afghanistan is worth the price it is likely to cost. President Obama's challenge is to persuade the country that Afghanistan is worth it.
Writing on his blog at THE NEW YORKER, George Packer makes a similar point. Calling the speech, "the least rousing, most skeptical call to arms I've ever heard," Packer points out that it was appropriate for the situation, because, "given all the constraints and uncertainties and pressures and risks, he has set out on the least awful path." It was not the time, Packer believes, to "offer the slightest bit of false comfort."

Reactions to the plan
As for the plan itself, few offer unconditional support for the plan, and those that do tend to think of it as the least bad option. As the Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid wrote in THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS, "After all the talk about how many different audiences President Barack Obama had to satisfy when he finally outlined his strategy for Afghanistan on Tuesday night, he probably satisfied no more than one — the American audience who will support a continued US war effort only if there is a fixed deadline for starting to pull out US troops."

At the ATLANTIC, both Andrew Sullivan and James Fallows feel similarly about the plan, summarized best by the title of Fallows post, "I hope he's right." Sullivan begins his post with, "I think this strategy is doomed," before going on to say that it was perhaps the least bad option available.

Kevin Drum, of the progressive magazine MOTHER JONES, who was generally unenthusiastic about the speech, was glad for a built-in deadline, "On the substantive side, the good news was Obama's clear declaration that this would be limited effort and he plans to begin withdrawing the surge troops within 18 months. Conservatives are outraged by this, of course, but look: we've been in Afghanistan for eight years. If 100,000+ NATO troops can't start to turn the tide by 2011, then it's time to leave. The alternative is to commit to staying forever, and that's insane. Obama has now given the military everything it needs to succeed, and if they still can't do it, then they just can't do it."

Many conservatives do, in fact, support the troop increase and oppose the withdrawal date. The editors at the NATIONAL REVIEW wrote, "The most problematic element of Obama's speech was, of course, his pledge to start pulling out troops in 18 months. It's foolish to give the enemy such an explicit timeline for the end of our maximum application of force. And it speaks to a worrisome impatience — and sensitivity to the political calendar — in an endeavor that requires time and an iron stomach. "

It is a point echoed by Karl Rove in the WALL STREET JOURNAL, "Mr. Obama also announced he would begin withdrawing the surge troops in 18 months. While he didn't specify the pace and end date of that drawdown and made it conditional on where things stand at the time, setting an arbitrary date will likely embolden our enemies and raise questions about our commitment to the war."

Others though, were more critical. Writing at the NATIONAL REVIEW, Stephen Yates and Christian Whiton argue that Obama hesitated too long in making his decision, and has settled for "managed failure."

And on the other side of the aisle, writing on the NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS blog after the speech, historian Garry Wills, who had previously argued that Obama should end the war in Afghanistan no matter what the political costs, called the escalation a betrayal of those that supported his presidency, "Obama will not get another penny from me, or another word of praise, after this betrayal. And in all this I know that my disappointment does not matter. What really matters are the lives of the young men and women he is sending off to senseless deaths."

You can find more responses, including those from Europe, Afghanistan and Pakistan, in the resources below.

Do you believe the President has made the best decision? Comment on the Moyers Blog.
Related Media:
AfghanistanThe JOURNAL on Afghanistan
View complete coverage from BILL MOYERS JOURNAL on the war in Afghanistan.


Andrew BacevichAndrew Bacevich
Is an imperial presidency destroying what America stands for? Bill Moyers interviews history and international relations expert and former US Army Colonel Andrew J. Bacevich who identifies three major problems facing our democracy: the crises of economy, government and militarism, and calls for a redefinition of the American way of life. (August 15, 2008)

Rory StewartRory Stewart
Rory Stewart, director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, lays out an alternate strategy for the international community in Afghanistan. (September 25, 2009)

Nancy YoussefNancy Youssef
The JOURNAL takes a hard look at the state of affairs in ever-divided Afghanistan with McClatchy DC Pentagon correspondent Nancy Youssef. (September 11, 2009)

Drone Bomber, photo by U.S. Air ForceShahan Mufti and Juan Cole
As the world follows the violence and unrest in Pakistan, Bill Moyers speaks with historian Juan Cole and journalist Shahan Mufti about the U.S. relationship with Pakistan, how it relates to the war in Afghanistan, and why they think Pakistan is not likely to become a failed state anytime soon. (May 15, 2009)

Sarah Chayes, photo by Robin HollandSarah Chayes
As a new administration is set to take over in the White House, Bill Moyers checks in with author Sarah Chayes on the state of affairs in America's other war in Afghanistan. An author and journalist, Chayes has lived the last eight years in Afghanistan helping to rebuild the country. (December 19, 2008)

References and Reading:
"Obama's Speech on Afghanistan,"
Text and video at THE NEW YORK TIMES.

"Gates Says Afghan Drawdown Timing Is Flexible "
By David Stout, THE NEW YORK TIMES, December 3, 2009.

"Top Ten things that Could Derail Obama's Afghanistan Plan"
By Juan Cole, INFORMED COMMENT, December 2, 2009.

"Obama's folly"
By Andrew Bacevich, THE LOS ANGELES TIMES, December 3, 2009.

"Afghan Reaction To Obama Surge As Confused As In U.S."
By By Frank James, NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO, December 2, 2009.

"Afghan Reaction Toward New US Strategy Mixed"
VOICE OF AMERICA, December 2, 2009.

"Europe's cautious response to Obama"
By Gavin Hewitt, BBC, December 2, 2009.

"NATO Pledges 7,000 More Troops for Afghanistan "
By MARK LANDLER and STEVEN ERLANGER, THE NEW YORK TIMES, December 4, 2009.

"Reactions to Obama's Afghan surge vary on the ground"
By Ben Gilbert, THE GLOBAL POST, December 2, 2009.

"Obama's Two Generals,"
By Cyril Almeida, THE DAWN, December 4, 2009.
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