Our Decisive Indecisive Afghan Strategy

by Derrick G. Jeter

“It is better to be brief than tedious.”

–William Shakespeare, King Richard III (3.4.89)

The greatest sin any public speaker can commit is the sin of being boring. But that sin can be forgiven, unless you are the Commander-in-Chief speaking to young men and women who must commit their lives to the defense of the country at his command. On Tuesday evening, December 1, 2009, a normally eloquent Barack Obama anesthetized the cadets of West Point—as well as the nation—with a speech that should have been anything but soporific. He was announcing the administration’s strategy in Afghanistan, a subject that should have had every cadet riveted to every word that proceeded from the president’s mouth. As it was, many of them, as the camera panned the audience, were fighting a very different battle.

Listening to the president’s remarks (and since reading them) I was left with the impression that as a piece of rhetoric it was an idea in search of a speech. In other words, it was trying to do too much. We might say, paraphrasing Winston Churchill when complaining about the taste of pudding, “This pudding has no theme.” Chocolate pudding should taste like chocolate pudding. Vanilla pudding should taste like vanilla pudding. An economic speech should sound like an economic speech and a war speech should sound like a war speech—it has a central theme. Instead, what he delivered was a war speech, an economic speech, a blame-the-previous-administration speech, and a nuclear disarmament speech. It was a campaign speech. All that was missing was the bands, balloons, and ballyhoo—which would have at least kept the cadets awake. Someone should have reminded the president and his speechwriters that “The difference between a brilliant speech and a good one . . . is what happens to it in the last half hour.” And then they should have cut the last half hour.

Besides having too many themes and being too long, the speech was badly in need of a narcissistic edit. In an effort to ensure the cadets that he did not take lightly the decision he announced (which I’ll address in a moment), he included this paragraph:

Most of all, I know that this decision asks even more of you—a military that, along with your families, has already borne the heaviest of all burdens. As President, I have signed a letter of condolence to the family of each American who gives their life in these wars. I have read the letters from the parents and spouses of those who deployed. I visited our courageous wounded warriors at Walter Reed. I’ve traveled to Dover to meet the flag-draped caskets of 18 Americans returning home to their final resting place. I see firsthand the terrible wages of war. If I did not think that the security of the United States and the safety of the American people were at stake in Afghanistan, I would gladly order every single one of our troops home tomorrow.

He used “I” eight times in that paragraph, in a section that was filled with too many “I’s.” But more troubling, especially when addressing soldiers in training—many who will graduate in May, 2010, and be deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq, and other parts of the world—is even hinting about how hard your job is compared to theirs. This is self-serving, unseemly, and condescending.

But this is merely my critique of the rhetoric. Turning my attention to the content of the speech itself I should first off congratulate the president for announcing an additional 30,000 troops to be sent to Afghanistan. And while I think on the whole it’s better to listen to the generals on the ground—General McCrystal had asked for 40,000—acknowledgement is due to the president given the pressure he was under from the left to simply pull out all troops from Afghanistan and Iraq.

Having said that, however, there are problems with Obama’s strategy as articulated in the speech . . . or rather not articulated in the speech. If the form of the speech was not Churchillian then neither was the content. Nowhere did Obama use the word victory. He spoke in the language of a corporate president, announcing a new marketing strategy: we “will pursue [this strategy] to a successful conclusion”; “we must come together to end this . . . successfully.” This was to be a war speech. Wars are not brought to “successful conclusions,” they are won—through victory. The president told us that what’s at stake “is the security of the world.” If that’s the case, why couldn’t he marshal the following kind of language?

“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however, long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival. Let that be realised; no survival . . . no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal. But I take up my task with buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men. At this time I feel entitled to claim the aid of all, and I say, “Come then, let us go forward together with our united strength.”

This would have kept the cadets awake. And who knows, it might have also prompted some of us to declare what was declared after Churchill’s war speeches in 1940. From an RAF officer: “After those speeches we wanted the Germans to come.” And this from Casper Weinberger, future Secretary of Defense, who heard Churchill on the radio while sitting in his American barracks: “I don’t know about the others, but I was certainly moved more completely than I had been by any speech since.”

Instead, we got pablum in the conclusion: “a better future for our children and grandchildren . . . our security and leadership does not come solely from the strength of our arms . . . [and] our cause is just, our resolve unwavering.” We got naiveté in the passage about nuclear arms: “I’ve made it a central pillar of my foreign policy . . . to pursue the goal of a world without them—because every nation must understand that true security will never come from an endless race for ever more destructive weapons; true security will come for those who reject them.” And we got equivocation in the heart of the speech, the announcement itself: “I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home. These are the resources that we need to seize the initiative, while building the Afghan capacity that can allow for a responsible transition of our forces out of Afghanistan” (emphasis mine). We are going to “send” to “come home”? We are going to “seize the initiative” to “transition . . . out of Afghanistan”?

In the end, Obama decided to be indecisive, resolved to be irresolute, and committed to be noncomital. No wonder the cadets were nodding off.