Commentary Magazine


The Speech and the Policy

Last week, I wrote that the December 1 speech and the decision it would announce were going to give us “some sense of whether Obama is finally surrendering to the logic of the presidency, in which you have to deal with the world as it is and make policy out of the materials at hand rather than wishing bad stuff away. If he does so, he will announce his acceptance of the McChrystal plan, and he will take a giant step toward filling the Oval Office in the way it needs to be filled.”

Whatever the flaws in the speech itself — and they were considerable — Obama’s announcement and the details of the plan together represent a landmark moment. After spending a few months desperately looking for another choice, a third choice, a cute choice, Obama did in fact surrender to the logic of the presidency. Having called the conflict in Afghanistan a “war of necessity,” he has committed the nation to it, and himself to it. Even his words about troop withdrawal in 2011 suggest the seriousness of that commitment, since he only mentioned beginning the withdrawals and conditioned even that on the facts on the ground at the time. As Andrew Ferguson writes,

Obama is the first Democratic president in forty years to call for a significant deployment of American troops in the national security interest of his country. This is very big news. His predecessor, President Clinton, could give a stirring address dispatching bombers over Bosnia and be confident of the support of his fellow Democrats, because the show of power was purely humanitarian and had nothing to do with keeping us safe from our enemies. With great courage, Obama is trying something that hasn’t been tried within the living memory of most of the members of his party.

I think Andy Ferguson is right about Obama’s courage. He is clearly acting against his own gut instincts and those within the ideological tendency that is his natural and longtime home, and that does take courage. Indeed, that is what accounts for the unsatisfying quality of the speech he delivered. He was trying to find language with which he could make his decision explicable to people like him — indeed, perhaps even to an alternate-universe Barack Obama who hadn’t won the presidency and would almost certainly have viewed the notion of committing more troops to Afghanistan in a Bush-like “surge” an awful proposition. That mollification isn’t really possible, and so the speech didn’t work as a matter of rhetoric or suasion.

But that is a missed opportunity for him. It doesn’t really matter. It’s the policy that matters.