THE PLANK DECEMBER 2, 2009
I basically liked Obama's speech. I'm skeptical about the timeline for withdrawal, but on the question that matters most--whether to send more troops--Obama has, I think, made the right decision, and done so over considerable opposition from within his own party and his own administration.
That said, as much as I agreed with Obama's essential argument, something bothered me about the speech. It had less to do with Afghanistan than with the larger principles involved. The speech may have been, as Mike pointed out, remarkably consistent with an earlier Obama address. But it was also weirdly inconsistent with itself.
In a speech dedicated to explaining why our national security depends on our ability to help provide safety and good governance for people half a world away, Obama nevertheless felt the need to take not one but two swipes at the concept of nation-building--swipes that made him sound like a 1990s Republican or candidate George W. Bush in 2000. "Some call for a more dramatic and open-ended escalation of our war effort--one that would commit us to a nation-building project of up to a decade," Obama said, before stating, "I reject this course." A few moments later, he said that "our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended--because the nation that I'm most interested in building is our own." The second line, one of the ugliest things I have ever heard Obama say, seemed to echo John Kerry's much-maligned statement from 2004 that "we shouldn't be opening firehouses in Baghdad and shutting them in the United States of America." These attacks on nation-building--a liberal idea that Democrats should be reclaiming and repairing, not turning into a political slur--carried an odd undertone of isolationism; they were totally out of place in a speech announcing a policy that is admirably un-isolationist.
Having attacked nation-building and strained unconvincingly to cast his Afghanistan policy in opposition to it, Obama then reversed course and offered this paean to human rights at the end of the speech: "We must make it clear to every man, woman and child around the world who lives under the dark cloud of tyranny that America will speak out on behalf of their human rights, and tend to the light of freedom and justice and opportunity and respect for the dignity of all peoples. That is who we are. That is the source, the moral source, of America's authority." In the course of a few paragraphs, Obama had gone from the rhetoric of quasi-isolationism to the rhetoric of democracy promotion. The words may not have been in literal conflict with each other--it is technically possible, I guess, to believe in aggressive human-rights promotion while disdaining nation-building--but they were in tension at the very least. Saying "the nation that I'm most interested in building is our own" is pretty hard to square with a commitment to "tend to the light of freedom and justice and opportunity and respect for the dignity of all peoples." You either believe that America's foreign policy ought to be closely tied to the promotion of rights and freedoms outside our borders, or you don't. People who use America-first rhetoric generally fall into the latter category.
None of this, of course, has much to do with Afghanistan policy, which is not going to be affected by rhetorical inconsistencies in last night's speech. But the rhetoric does, I think, help to answer a question that a lot of pundits have been puzzling over for the past year: What, exactly, is Barack Obama's overarching worldview when it comes to foreign policy? For a long time, I've felt I didn't really know. After last night's speech, I suspect Obama doesn't really know either. A politician who is capable of sounding such dissonant notes in the same speech is a politician who is still figuring out his first principles of foreign policy. This might help explain some of the more confusing things about Obama's first year in office: how, for instance, a president who has found his way to a human-rights-friendly policy on Afghanistan could have seemed so cold to human rights in his approach to Iran and China; or how a candidate who once spoke forcefully about the need to address genocide in Sudan has proven to be such a disaster on the issue now that he is in office.
If Obama really is still figuring out his first principles, then it offers a measure of hope to those in the human rights community who have been rightly disappointed by him so far. It means there is still a chance he might improve. Which in turn makes it important for Darfur activists, China activists, those advocating for women in Afghanistan, and everyone else who cares about human rights to be relentless in criticizing his administration whenever it fails to live up to liberal ideals.
It's possible, of course, that Obama is just a devout pragmatist who will make every foreign policy decision on an ad hoc basis, with no discernible pattern or principle linking them together. But I doubt it. Most presidents, in the end, seem to settle on a roughly coherent view of the world. (Clinton eventually fumbled his way towards a version of liberal interventionism after an early flirtation with isolationism; George W. Bush went from being an uber-realist on September 10, 2001 to being an uber-idealist on September 12.) Besides, a devout pragmatist would eschew principle entirely, which wasn't at all what Obama did in his speech. There were definitely some very clear principles articulated at West Point last night. They just happened to totally contradict each other.
More on Obama's Afghanistan Speech:
"More On Obama's Inconsistencies," by John B. Judis
"How Obama's Surge Is Like Bush's," by Steven Metz
"Obama Sticks To His Guns," by Michael Crowley
"A Lonely Kind Of Courage," by Elizabeth D. Samet
"Obama's Other Front: The Hill," by Lydia DePillis and Jesse Zwick
"The Day After: A Hollow Withdrawal Pledge Comes Into Focus," by Michael Crowley
"Sorry, But I Hear Echoes of Vietnam," by John B. Judis
"Obama Channels Eisenhower," by Peter Scoblic