If there’s one thing that everybody seems agreed on, it is that Barack Obama’s speech at West Point did not sound like Winston Churchill.
“It’s not exactly the kind of speech that you would have heard from Henry V or Churchill,” said Charles Krauthammer in the post-speech coverage on Fox. “Too much Chamberlain, not enough Churchill,” agreed Chris Matthews on MSNBC the day before.
What nobody pauses to explain is why it would be desirable for Obama to have sounded like Churchill.
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 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. A grand Churchillian oration would be utterly counter-productive to that end. Imagine that Obama had delivered to the West Point cadets an updated version of the tremendous Churchillian words:
“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.”
The television audience would have wondered: Has this man lost his mind? A phrase like “however long and hard the road may be” only raises the awkward question: Wait a minute – if it is going to be as hard and long as all that, maybe we should just forget this whole faraway war before it revs up.
Americans cannot be inspired to risk all for Afghanistan. But they can be persuaded that the war is necessary and winnable – if the promises are delivered in ways that sound considered and credible.
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. 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.
As a former speechwriter myself, I am sometimes asked to review the work of aspiring young writers. In their drafts it is always 1940. Their language is grand, soaring, and – yes – Churchillian. It is always a finest hour, and they never have anything to offer except blood, toil, tears and sweat. But modern insurgency war is anything but fine. It is protracted and wearying and expensive. It is frequently lost not to enemy action, but to electoral impatience.
If President Obama’s speech can mobilize the public to endurance and patience, it will count as a success, even without stirring clips to replay before the endlessly fluttering electronic flags over the shoulders of the cable pundits. Who would understand that better than the actual Winston Churchill, who devoted much of his last prime ministership to the successful quelling of an insurgency in Malaya – without delivering a single memorable speech?
Originally published December 3, 2009 in The Week.