Obama’s Speech May Have Lost the War

December 4th, 2009 at 7:04 pm | 64 Comments |

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David Frum admits that Obama’s speech about Afghanistan was “unchurchillian,” but argues that this actually is a good thing because it means that “hopes for success have been realistically assessed.” Frum is wrong.

Other conservative hawks — the Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol, National Review’s Rich Lowry, and Commentary Magazine’s John Podhoretz, among others — acknowledge that the speech was bad, but contend that rhetorical weakness doesn’t matter because the president got the policy right. That’s wrong too.

Words matter greatly in war, and especially in counterinsurgency warfare. Words matter because, as Charles Krauthammer notes in today’s Washington Post, “will matters.” Obama’s weak words raise damaging doubts about the strength of his will, as Nushin Arbabzadah observed yesterday in the Guardian:

Obama’s message might be understood as complex in the rest of the world but to rural Afghanistan it means only one thing: the return of the Taliban. For rural Afghans this means that they have no option but to co-operate with the Taliban because the insurgents’ ruthlessness is still fresh in public memory.

The people of Kabul have worse to fear from Obama’s message. After all, many Kabulis happily rounded up the Taliban and handed them over to the foreign troops in 2001. The likelihood of encountering a vengeful Taliban is a scary thought, especially since Afghans are aware that few people would be ready to take up arms and die fighting against them.

Churchill, of course, understood this dynamic. It was famously said of him that he marshaled the English language and sent it forth to war.

“You ask, What is our aim? I can answer with one word: 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…

David is right to point out that Churchill’s grandiloquence is ill-suited for our times. But that doesn’t excuse our commander-in-chief from his responsibility to exercise the bully pulpit in ways that are suited to our times — to inspire national purpose and resolve.

Here are the key points the president should have made:

  • The safety and security of our country and our people require the successful prosecution of this war. Failure is not an option. Losing is not an option.
  • An American defeat in Afghanistan would embolden the Jihadists and send shock waves throughout the world — shock waves that would reverberate to the great detriment of our nation and our people. I cannot and will not let that happen — not now, and not four years from now.
  • America will win in Afghanistan. The lessons from the successful surge in Iraq have been well learned.
  • Our strategy: We will protect the Afghan people from the insurgents; we will kill and capture the Jihadists; and we will work closely with the Afghan government and tribal leaders to rebuild their country and their governing institutions. And, through it all, we will train and partner with the Afghan military and the Afghan police so that one day, the Afghans no longer need our assistance and our troops can come home.
  • We will impose no arbitrary deadlines and timetables on our efforts. The war will end only when we have achieved our objectives, which are an independent and stable Afghanistan that is no longer a safe haven for terrorists and Jihadists, and that no longer threatens the stability of its neighbors. I cannot now tell you when exactly that will happen; success will require years of sustained effort.
  • No American soldier, sailor, airman, or marine will ever die in vain. If they must die, then they will do so in victory and for a just and worthy cause.

Unfortunately, that’s not the speech that Obama delivered. Obama never even used the word victory. He did use the less emphatic and ill-defined word “success,” but success at what exactly? Success at winning the war, or success at ending the war? There is a difference. Obama seemed focused on the latter (ending) and not the former (winning).

This is simply unacceptable when you are sending young men and women off to war. This is unacceptable when you are trying to rally the American people to support a war which, if waged correctly, almost certainly will require far more than 18 months of sustained and difficult efforts.

Young John F. Kerry did a tremendous disservice to his fellow veterans when he wrongly accused them of mass war crimes before a committee of Congress. Kerry, however, got one thing right: No soldier or marine should be asked to die for a mistake or an exit strategy. They should be asked to risk life and limb for victory and for victory alone.

If President Obama had struck a winning tone – yes, appropriately adapted for the times in which we now live, and fully cognizant of the fact that the American people are indeed skeptical and war weary — then the West Point cadets likely would have risen to their feet and given our president an enthusiastic, standing ovation. And this would have sent a thunderous message to the Jihhadists — and a reassuring note of conviction to the American and Afghan people and to our allies worldwide.

David insists that Obama was mindful of the need for appropriate rhetoric to mark the historic occasion of his speech. That’s why, Frum says, the president chose “Eisenhower as his exemplar rather than Churchill.”

In preferring Eisenhower as his exemplar rather than Churchill, Obama sounded exactly the right, reassuring note. Don’t worry, he was saying to the American public, I won’t lose sight of larger goals. The costs of an intensified commitment to Afghanistan have been carefully weighed and considered; hopes for success have been realistically assessed.

David, unfortunately, has seriously misread the president’s speech. Obama referenced Eisenhower not to reassure the American and Afghan people about his commitment to Afghanistan; quite the opposite. Obama referenced Eisenhower to explain why, in his judgment, America’s renewed commitment to Afghanistan must be severely constrained, and why it must end almost as soon as it begins.

I’m mindful of President Eisenhower, who, in discussing national security, said: ‘Each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs.’

To Obama’s way of thinking, these “broader consideration[s]” include economic factors and “competition within the global economy,” which supposedly limit America’s ability to protect the national interest abroad. Never mind that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan account for little more than one percent of America’s Gross Domestic Product. In Obama’s mind, that’s too exorbitant a cost to bear to “assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

Still, David holds up the rhetorically challenged Eisenhower as an example of how a commander-in-chief should conduct himself (rhetorically speaking) at a time of war:

In his two terms, President Eisenhower oversaw the suppression of the communist ‘Huk’ insurgency in the Philippines. One reason for Ike’s success? By minimizing his political risk exposure, he gained additional elbow room to execute his strategy.

With all due respect to David, America was not at war in the Philippines in the 1950s in the way that America today is at war in Afghanistan. The Philippine government was far more mature than the Afghan government is today. The Philippine military was far larger numerically, and far more battle tested and advanced, than the Afghan national army is today. Consequently, in the Philippines, the U.S. military could play, and did play, much more of an advisory role than is possible today in Afghanistan.

In his confidential Aug 30 assessment, General McChrystal identified the “information domain” as a “battlespace.”

We “must take aggressive actions to win the important battle of perception,” he wrote. “Strategic Communication (StratComm) makes a vital contribution to the overall [war] effort — and more specifically, to the operational center of gravity, [which is maintaining] the continued support of the Afghan population.”

The StratComm initiatives that McChrystal identifies are all geared toward the boots on the ground in theater. But the “information domain” is also shaped by what our commander-in-chief and our other top leaders say and do. Consequently, as I wrote previously at FrumForum:

It is critically important that U.S. political and military leaders send a clear and resolute message to friend and foe alike — to wit: that the United States is intent on achieving victory and will stop at nothing to ensure that victory is achieved.

Despite all its flaws and missteps, this was the message that the Bush administration sent forth when it persevered in Iraq — and especially when it embraced General Petraeus and ‘the surge’ of U.S. forces there. And the Iraqi government, the Iraqi people, political and tribal leaders; Suni, Shia and Kurdish factions; and al-Qaeda-led insurgents all got the message:

President Bush and the United States are serious. They intend to fight and to win. They can be neither stopped nor dissuaded. Indeed, no amount of improvised explosives and combat and civilian deaths can tire or deter them. Best to make peace while we can, and to reconcile with the Iraqi government while we can, before we become completely irrelevant to our country’s rapidly changing political landscape.

In short, the surge in Iraq worked because the American will to win, as epitomized by President Bush and U.S. military leaders on the ground, was clear and unmistakable. And that will to win was backed up by both hard and soft power, courtesy of the awesome might and generous heart of U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines.

Churchill promised “blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” Obama promises, in the words of Charles Krauthammer, “hedges, caveats, and one giant exit ramp.”

Rhetoric and policy in war — and especially in counterinsurgency warfare — are inextricably linked and mutually dependent. Consequently, the president’s bad speech in itself constitutes a type of bad policy.

The speech trumpets hesitancy, doubt and uncertainty when what is needed right now are resolve, resolution and will. The great American wartime leaders — Lincoln, Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Reagan — all understood the power of words in war. Sadly and ironically, although he fancies himself a great orator, President Obama does not. And so America may yet lose the war because of his weak rhetorical leadership.

Recent Posts by John Guardiano

64 Comments so far ↓

  • rbottoms

    What I do do — and have done ever since high school and college — is argue in the public prints, openly and transparently, about matters of public policy.

    If you haven’t read Wired for War, I highly recommend it.

    Our spending going forward needs to move away from giant ocean going targets like aircraft carriers and super expensive aircraft built for dogfights over the European plains to better AI to link sensors and drones, better battlefield robotics, hardening our electrical and information grids at home.

    Half-billion dollar planes that can’t be left out in the rain just don’t make sense with 10,000 drones flown from Nevada by 22 year old specialists instead of million dollar pilots can be had for similar money. If we fight China, we’ll be facing a half-million hackers and their immensely more advanced initiatives in wired warfare that 1,000 FY-22′s won’t affect in the least.

    We need a Steve Job’s flavored Patton for the future.

  • mbilinsky


    Patriotism is not childish. The belief that buzz-word-heavy appeals to patriotism are the key to success in an extremely complicated and layered military mission…that is childish.

    Even the use of simple assessments of the Afghanistan situation such as “win the war” or “lose the war” are childish since our objectives there are so complex.

    Oh, and brushing off any defense of Obama as me being “blinded by intense devotion” is also childish.

  • llbroo49

    So what the author is saying is that we have spent billions of dollars reinforcing Afghanistan when we could/should have spent hundreds of dollars for tough speeches/talk. Lets get real- speeches by Presidents for the most part are for domestic consumption. How effective has tough talk been in moving Iran to abandon its weapons program to date? The Iranians will move when they see a build up of our military or increased actvity is monitored by their security agencies that lead them to fear we are real.

    I do not remeber any speeches from leaders of North Korea in the 1950s, Vietnam in the 1960s, or the insurgents in Iraq that made me feel like they guys were serious and willing to fight to the death. And even if they did obviously WE did not take them seriously. We took their actions seriously.

    In the end we don’t want to sound like Baghdad Bob (“we are slaughtering the Americans”).

    Remember- speak softly and carry a big stick.

  • rbottoms

    Remember- speak softly and carry a big stick.

    And be sure to use the stick on the right country. We might as well invaded Poland for all the good using up a trillion dollars and 5,000+ lives in Iraq has done us.

    It didn’t make us safer, it ground the Army down to a numb, and it’s left 50,000 of our best maimed physically and emotionally. And for what?

    Our least worst best outcome is to put the Taliban in a box and minimize the pillaging of major city centers like Kabul. These people have been fighting of invaders for almost two centuries. Ultimately, everyone goes home. Unless we’re planning to flatten the place, kill every living soul and annex the country we’ll go home too.

    The question is how large a heroin pipeline do we leave behind and how much help to Al Queada in Pakistan can we degrade. Anything beyond that is a fantasy.

  • sinz54

    Guardiano: the point is to substantively define and substantively argue for American victory in war.
    I agree that Obama should have defined “winning” more precisely–”Our troops will have done their job when the followiing goals have been met”.

    But Obama did argue for the necessity of fighting in Afghanistan. And it was Obama, we have now learned, who took the option of immediate withdrawal off the table right at the start of his deliberations about the war.

    I know you were hoping Obama would deliver a “rah-rah, kick-ass” type of speech. But I note the absence of a Patton-style kick-ass speech from General Petraeus. Petraeus did a good job with the Iraq surge, yet AFAIK, he never gave such a speech. Perhaps he realizes that when you’re fighting a dirty counterinsurgency war in which you don’t just shoot at the enemy but have to make dirty little political deals with villagers and tribes to win them to your side, and also engage in social welfare like handing out food to the hungry, a Patton-style kick-ass speech is inappropriate.

    But that does raise an interesting question: What kind of morale-boosting speech can you give to the American people about that kind of war?

  • Carney

    rbottoms, I will continue to speak out for victory. It is victory for America that I love so much, not wars as such. Your opposition to America winning should shame you, and it is you who should be silent.

  • HardlyConservative

    Mr Guardiano-

    I am still waiting for your definition of victory. I do mean this as a serious question, and hope that you will answer it instead of just brushing me off.

  • mbilinsky

    HardlyConservative – He doesn’t have one. If he did, he wouldn’t have made the title of this post such a pithy oversimplification.

  • cpanza


    He won’t give one, outside of throwing around generalizations like “we must win” and “victory is an imperative” and so on.

  • John Guardiano

    Cpanza, MBlinsky, and HardlyConservative —

    You keep asking for me to define victory — as if the concept is mysterious or difficult to fathom and understand. I’m not sure what accounts for your incomprehension, but let me try to help you.

    For starters, there is what I wrote in this piece (see below), where I describe American objectives in Afghanistan:

    “… an independent and stable Afghanistan that is no longer a safe haven for terrorists and Jihadists, and that no longer threatens the stability of its neighbors…”

    Victory, then, occurs when Afghanistan is relatively stable and independent and does not threaten its neighbors or the world.

    Victory occurs when the Jihhadists no longer can seek sanctuary in Afghanistan – when they no longer can use Afghanistan as a staging ground from which to attack Pakistan or the United States.

    Victory occurs when our soldiers and marines can step back and let the Afghans take the lead in patrolling and policing their own country.

    Victory occurs when the Afghan government feels confident enough to ask our forces to pull back to remote forward operating bases and to function simply as a force in reserve just in case.

    Victory occurs when young Afghan girls can attend school and learn without fear that they will be attacked by the Taliban.

    I could elaborate further, but you get the point.

    In any case, what is it about victory that you don’t you understand? And why would you not support these high-minded objectives? Why would you not support the president’s Afghan policy?


  • mbilinsky

    All worthy goals. All goals which the President’s policy, if implemented correctly, can make significant steps towards attaining. Staying in Afghanistan until a functioning, stable, and SUSTAINABLE democracy that is able to control and the police the entire territory actually materializes? Probably wishful thinking and at least another 8 years and hundreds of billions of dollars away. Creating conditions for that vision to eventually materialize, while recognizing the limitations of America’s ability to single-handedly make it happen? More realistic and I am hopeful about the prospects.

    John, you have identified what you believe “victory” to be. I still find it extraordinarily disingenuous that you think the fact that the President spoke in terms of hardened realism as opposed to needlessly emotional rhetoric will be the single factor that prevents us from achieving the goals you have identified.

  • HardlyConservative

    “You keep asking for me to define victory — as if the concept is mysterious or difficult to fathom and understand. ”

    Anybody can go to dictionary.com and read what “victory” is- but obviously if it took you that many statements (and perhaps many more that you alluded to) to define what it means to you, it’s obviously not a simple or universal concept. My point was the fact that you and a number of other commentators harp on the fact that he never uttered the syllables “victory”, and that this was enough to “lose the war”.

    “And why would you not support these high-minded objectives? ”

    I support those objectives- but there is a big difference between an objective and a benchmark. If “victory” is all of those things and many other unnamed points you have yet to mention, and we must accomplish every single one of those before leaving or we are a failure- I CANNOT support that. I don’t want to be telling my kids to not enlist in the army because we’re still in afghanistan. (Note: I don’t have any children yet.)

  • John Guardiano

    I have read “Wired for War” and think it’s a very good book. I have seen and worked on some of the robotic developments that P.W. Singer discusses. I believe in a tech-savvy military to match the tech-savvy young Americans who populate that military.

    Moreover, I am sympathetic to your argument and am, to a considerable extent in agreement with you. I want to empower the grunts on the ground and am far less concerned about developing new missiles and new fighter jets and aircraft to combat a largely mythological Chinese military menace.

    The future is not a fight against China. The future is more of these messy, ground-intensive fights in remote and complex areas like Somalia, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Honduras, etc. We need ground-force modernization; and yet, we continually give short-shrift to the soldiers and marines who bear the brunt of the burden in modern-day, 21st fights.

    Read, for instance, the first piece that I posted to this site:



  • Anonymous

    [...] this is patently untrue. Why, there was a long and protracted debate in 2009 when Gen. McChrystal took over and requested more troops. And this debate continued throughout 2010 [...]