More than just the numbers

We had dinner out last night so I wasn’t home to watch the President’s speech on Afghanistan.  Taped it, but got home too late to watch. 

Turned on TV when I got up this morning to see what the pundits were saying.  Got the numbers (10,000 troops out by the end of this year; 23,000 by the end of next summer).  Read the front-page story in the New York Times (“Obama Will Speed Pullout From War in Afghanistan”) and the comments in my First Read from NBC News daily email. (Nancy Pelosi wants troops out faster; John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Tim Pawlenty want it slower; “from the White House’s perspective, the withdrawal decision was the most aggressive Obama could get military commanders to sign off on (which was somewhat contentious).”

OK – I got the gist of it.  So did I need to watch the speech? 

Got an email this morning from David Plouffe, Senior Advisor to the President (we’re on a first-name basis J), with a link where I could watch online. 

Decided to watch – and was I glad I did.  In fact, I watched it twice.  It was only 15-minutes long (the Times article had told me that).

It was an important reminder that talking points and pundits’ snappy sound bites may give me the “what” and the “when” – and other people’s reactions – but without hearing the speech myself, I couldn’t objectively form my own opinion.

For me, what was more important than the numbers and the withdrawal timetable – which were outlined in the first few minutes of the speech – was hearing the President remind us why we are in Afghanistan in the first place, and why an additional 30,000 troops were sent in last year (“one of the most difficult decisions that I’ve made as President”).

When I announced this surge at West Point, we set clear objectives:  to refocus on al Qaeda, to reverse the Taliban’s momentum, and train Afghan security forces to defend their own country.  I also made it clear that our commitment would not be open-ended, and that we would begin to draw down our forces this July.

Since we are meeting those goals, Obama said, we can begin the drawdown.

Then he explained why he decided on a pace of withdrawal that was faster than some wanted:  We’ve made a lot of progress in weakening Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and Afghan security forces have grown and begun assuming responsibility for security in many areas.

He said we’re not cutting and running, but Afghanistan needs more than a reduction in violence.

… peace cannot come to a land that has known so much war without a political settlement.  So as we strengthen the Afghan government and security forces, America will join initiatives that reconcile the Afghan people, including the Taliban.  Our position on these talks is clear:  They must be led by the Afghan government, and those who want to be a part of a peaceful Afghanistan must break from al Qaeda, abandon violence, and abide by the Afghan constitution.  But, in part because of our military effort, we have reason to believe that progress can be made.

He stated the goal for the next stage of our involvement in Afghanistan:

No safe haven from which al Qaeda or its affiliates can launch attacks against our homeland or our allies. 

Importantly, he said what we won’t do:

We won’t try to make Afghanistan a perfect place.  We will not police its streets or patrol its mountains indefinitely.  That is the responsibility of the Afghan government, which must step up its ability to protect its people, and move from an economy shaped by war to one that can sustain a lasting peace.  What we can do, and will do, is build a partnership with the Afghan people that endures –- one that ensures that we will be able to continue targeting terrorists and supporting a sovereign Afghan government.

He acknowledged the need to continue working with Pakistan to keep the Taliban from using it as a base for “violent extremism” and said we would “insist that it keeps its commitments.”

Then he broadened the discussion to the need to “chart a more centered course” for our foreign policy in the 21st century, and set out what I’d call his foreign policy philosophy:

[W]e must embrace America’s singular role in the course of human events.  But we must be as pragmatic as we are passionate; as strategic as we are resolute.  When threatened, we must respond with force –- but when that force can be targeted, we need not deploy large armies overseas.  When innocents are being slaughtered and global security endangered, we don’t have to choose between standing idly by or acting on our own.  Instead, we must rally international action, which we’re doing in Libya, where we do not have a single soldier on the ground, but are supporting allies in protecting the Libyan people and giving them the chance to determine their own destiny.

In other words – we have a role to play, but we don’t have to go it alone.  It’s not black or white, there are shades of gray.  I completely agree, and I think it is important and significant that he said it.

Finally, he talked beautifully about “what sets America apart:”

… not solely our power -– it is the principles upon which our union was founded.  We’re a nation that brings our enemies to justice while adhering to the rule of law, and respecting the rights of all our citizens.  We protect our own freedom and prosperity by extending it to others.  We stand not for empire, but for self-determination. 

And then he said:

That is why we have a stake in the democratic aspirations that are now washing across the Arab world.  We will support those revolutions with fidelity to our ideals, with the power of our example, and with an unwavering belief that all human beings deserve to live with freedom and dignity.

This part of the speech reminded me again why I am such a strong supporter of Obama: I share his view of the role of government domestically, and his view of the role of America in the world.  My values are his values; his are mine.  We might differ on some of the tactics, but we share the same goals.

In concluding the speech, Obama pivoted to the situation at home.  Realpolitik. 

Over the last decade, we have spent a trillion dollars on war, at a time of rising debt and hard economic times.  Now, we must invest in America’s greatest resource –- our people.  We must unleash innovation that creates new jobs and industries, while living within our means.  We must rebuild our infrastructure and find new and clean sources of energy.  And most of all, after a decade of passionate debate, we must recapture the common purpose that we shared at the beginning of this time of war.  For our nation draws strength from our differences, and when our union is strong no hill is too steep, no horizon is beyond our reach.

America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home.

I hope I haven’t given you so much of the speech that you decide not to watch it.  As I said at the beginning, all this is is my take, my reaction.  I hope you’ll take 15 minutes and watch the speech yourself … and then let me know what you think.
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