Obama Isn't Built for War

Obama Isn't Built for War

By Jack Kelly - December 7, 2009

If the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?" asked St. Paul (1 Corinthians 14:8 KJV).

President Barack Obama may soon find out. He announced Tuesday he'll send another 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, which could lead to victory there. But he also announced he'd begin withdrawing troops in 18 months, which makes defeat more likely.

"According to his speech, Obama is escalating while retreating," wrote John Dickerson in the liberal webzine Slate. The mixed messages the president was sending were noticed abroad.

"Obama's Afghanistan strategy oozes with desperation not to be there," wrote Simon Jenkins in the Guardian, a left-wing British newspaper.

"It was a dizzying combination of surge and withdrawal, of marching to and fro," wrote Gabor Steingart in the German magazine Der Spiegel.

If Mr. Obama wished to signal toughness and resolve, he telegraphed instead the opposite.

"President Obama's timetable for American forces in Afghanistan rattled nerves in that country and in Pakistan on Wednesday, as American diplomats worked to convince the two countries at the center of the president's war strategy that the United States would not cut and run," The New York Times reported Thursday.

It took courage for Mr. Obama, after months of dithering, to decide to give Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, most of the additional troops he'd requested, because this goes against the president's ideological inclinations and is strongly opposed by most in his party.

But the rhetorical bones Mr. Obama threw to his left wing in what was arguably the worst speech he has ever given likely undermined whatever good the troop surge otherwise would have done.

The worst part was the timetable for withdrawal, on which the president devoted more words than on what the additional troops would be doing in Afghanistan, or why it was important for them to be there.

"The jargon of transition and exit ramps, and an 18-month target to begin withdrawal unfortunately tells our enemies to perservere through a couple of bad fighting seasons, because the Americans, or at least their leaders, do not have the determination to succeed," said Eliot Cohen, a former State Department counselor who teaches at Johns Hopkins University.

Cynics note that though beginning to withdraw troops just 12 months after the last of them arrives makes no military sense, the troop withdrawal would begin about the time presidential re-election campaigns typically start gearing up. It's as if Mr. Obama were telling his disappointed base: "Hang with me for a year -- past the midterms -- and then I'll get us out of there."

"Withdrawal will be based on conditions on the ground ... in Washington," said Boston Herald Editor Jules Crittenden.

In his remarks, Mr. Obama referred to himself 45 times, but said the words "victory" and "win" not at all. He decried partisanship, but took shots at his predecessor at every opportunity. Perhaps he thought the cracks at President Bush would make his decision more palatable to his base. But for someone who must rely on Republicans to support his war policy, it was an odd thing to do.

"Our overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future," the president said.

But maybe not if it costs too much.

"By the time I took office the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan approached a trillion dollars," Mr. Obama said. "We simply cannot afford to ignore the price of these wars."

The cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to date are roughly equal to the failed $786 billion "stimulus" bill and the auto bailouts Congress passed this year.

Subordinating military requirements to domestic political considerations is what got Lyndon Johnson into deep trouble in Vietnam. It isn't likely to work better for Mr. Obama in Afghanistan.

The president will suffer from the image of vacillation and indecision he projected in the speech. What Americans want -- and our enemies fear -- in a war leader is firmness and decisiveness, which Franklin Roosevelt displayed after Pearl Harbor and George W. Bush displayed after 9/11.

Mr. Obama is president in wartime. But his speech made it plain he isn't a wartime president.


Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio.

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