It may not be what you think.
About half way into his speech at West Point on his plan to deploy 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, President Obama appeared to be repressing a brief bout of indigestion.
The President alluded in his speech to his early, principled opposition to the Iraq War. Yet the parallels between that misbegotten U.S. military adventure and this Administration's troop escalation in Afghanistan are striking. It must give Obama a queasy feeling to be laying out essentially the same arguments the Bush Administration made, with all their evident pitfalls, when it launched us on the endless "war on terror."
Right from the beginning of his speech, Obama was in Bush territory. He opened by rehashing the 9-11 attacks. Sounding like Bush and Dick Cheney, he dwelled on the loss of innocent American lives at the World Trade Center. And while Bush and Cheney were making a greater leap by connecting 9-11 to Iraq, Obama proceeded to make his own degrees-of-separation argument by casting the current escalation as a response to the attacks of 2001.
The 9-11 hijackers were members of Al Qaeda, he reminded us, and "Al Qaeda’s base of operations was in Afghanistan, where they were harbored by the Taliban." The current military operation, aimed at the Taliban, is not exactly the hunting down of Osama bin Laden (who is still at large) we used to hear about during the Presidential campaign. It is a step or two removed from that--a war with those who harbored the Al Qaeda plotters. Throughout the speech Obama referred to the enemy by turns as "Al Qaeda," "the Taliban," and, more generally, "extremists." This vagueness, reminiscent of the Bush argument for the Iraq war, is particularly troubling given the history of futile armed struggle in Afghanistan.
We are in Afghanistan, the President said, sounding like Lyndon Johnson during Vietnam, "to prevent a cancer from spreading."
The Vietnam argument was on Obama's mind. He took it on directly, calling any Afghanistan/Vietnam parallel a "false reading of history." Unlike Vietnam, we are joined by a broad coalition in Afghanistan. We are not facing a broad based popular insurgency (yet). And, of course--the trump card--9/11--"we were viciously attacked from Afghanistan."
In explaining what is bound to be an extremely unpopular decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan at a time when the military and the public are fatigued by multiple tours and shifting justifications for the long, depressing Iraq conflict, --now the longest war we've fought in our country's history-and during the worst economic downturn we've seen since the 1930s, Obama laid out the options and made clear that he is trying to pick the least of a number of possible evils.
The options, as he explained them, were to withdraw completely--untenable from a national security standpoint, as the President and his advisors see it (and politically risky for a Democrat), to escalate in an open-ended and indefinite fashion, as we did in Iraq (too expensive and potentially futile). So Obama is taking the middle path: escalation combined with a timetable for prompt withdrawal in 2011.
Thus we get this speech: a weird mix of inadequate explanations for an ill-conceived and potentially disastrous military escalation, thrown together with a mix of sensible programs and criticisms of the kinds of ill-conceived military adventures of the type we are now undertaking.
Acknowledging that we can't "capture or kill every single violent extremist abroad," Obama pointed to other, more reliable methods for making the United States more secure: securing loose nukes, reducing nuclear stockpiles, since "true security will never come from an endless race for more destructive weapons, practicing diplomacy, especially with Muslim countries--referring to his inspiring remaking of the U.S. relationship with other nations, particularly in the Muslim world. He made a plug for ending torture (on which the actual Obama record is considerably less inspiring than the rhetoric), and for democracy and human rights.
We are not an empire, Obama explained to his audience of grey-uniformed West Point cadets. "Unlike the great powers of old, we have not sought world domination. Our union was founded in resistance to oppression. We do not seek to occupy other nations. We will not claim another nation’s resources or target other peoples because their faith or ethnicity is different from ours. What we have fought for -- what we continue to fight for -- is a better future for our children and grandchildren. And we believe that their lives will be better if other peoples’ children and grandchildren can live in freedom and access opportunity."
But in Afghanistan, the people are not so clear on the idea that the U.S. troop surge will make life better. Writing in the UK Guardian, Malalai Joya, the youngest woman elected to the Afghan parliament in 2005, declared Obama's surge a "war crime," sure to bring more suffering and destruction to her country: " Already this year we have seen the impact of an increase in troops occupying Afghanistan: more violence, and more civilian deaths," Joya writes. "My people, the poor of Afghanistan who have known only war and the domination of fundamentalism, are today squashed between two enemies: the U.S./NATO occupation forces on one hand and warlords and the Taliban on the other."
The idea that the United States is strengthening civil society or democracy in Afghanistan is a bad joke, according to Joya, given the corruption of the Karzai regime: "After eight years of war, the situation is as bad as ever for ordinary Afghans, and women in particular. The reality is that only the drug traffickers and warlords have been helped under this corrupt and illegitimate Karzai government," she writes, noting that Karzai's own vice-president is a notorious warlord.
For the United States, according to the National Priorities Project the total cost of the war in Afghanistan, including the 30,000 additional troops Obama is requesting, could exceed $325 billion for the 2010 fiscal year. Troop fatalities--298 so far this year, compared with last year's 155--will also increase.
In the face of these realities, Obama's closing call for unity rang hollow:
"It's easy to forget that when this war began, we were united -- bound together by the fresh memory of a horrific attack, and by the determination to defend our homeland and the values we hold dear," Obama said. "I refuse to accept the notion that we cannot summon that unity again. I believe with every fiber of my being that we -- as Americans -- can still come together behind a common purpose. For our values are not simply words written into parchment -- they are a creed that calls us together, and that has carried us through the darkest of storms as one nation, as one people."
Sounding the same themes of hope and unity that were so uplifting during the campaign, Obama called on us to work together for " a future that represents not the deepest of fears but the highest of hopes."
Who would have guessed that he would use those words to launch us deeper into the devastatingly destructive war on terror?