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.