The Fog of War Speeches

Ceci n'est pas Kabul.

Tuesday night, Barack Obama announced his decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, he did little to explain it.

We read the transcript a few times after watching the speech, thinking that maybe we missed something during the excitement of discovering drinking games. What were we looking for? A reason.

Not just any reason — a good reason. Something meaty, something justifiable, even if we disagreed with it. We understand that a speech can’t be a detailed position paper — but if you’re addressing the nation on matters of life and death (never mind the treasure), you can take the time to make the case. Especially if you’re The Greatest Orator of Our Generation.

And what did we find? Alas, not much:

Yet huge challenges remain. Afghanistan is not lost, but for several years it has moved backwards. There’s no imminent threat of the government being overthrown, but the Taliban has gained momentum. Al Qaeda has not reemerged in Afghanistan in the same numbers as before 9/11, but they retain their safe havens along the border. And our forces lack the full support they need to effectively train and partner with Afghan security forces and better secure the population. Our new commander in Afghanistan — General McChrystal — has reported that the security situation is more serious than he anticipated. In short: The status quo is not sustainable.

That’s twelve paragraphs in, following a canned history of Life Since 9/11. And it’s maddeningly vague. In America’s imagination, we’re always liberating Paris so a grateful population can get on with their lives. But in Afghanistan, as Iraq before it, we ended up creating a power vacuum that some cunning folks were only too happy to fill. Obama’s speech papers over that mess with unrevealing generalities.

So let’s skip ahead a few more paragraphs:

I make this decision because I am convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the epicenter of violent extremism practiced by al Qaeda. It is from here that we were attacked on 9/11, and it is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak. This is no idle danger; no hypothetical threat. In the last few months alone, we have apprehended extremists within our borders who were sent here from the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan to commit new acts of terror. And this danger will only grow if the region slides backwards, and al Qaeda can operate with impunity. We must keep the pressure on al Qaeda, and to do that, we must increase the stability and capacity of our partners in the region.

Hold on — new acts of terror? We’d like to know more, but neither Obama nor the White House backgrounder goes into detail. Which is too bad, since the NYC subway plot would seem to contain just the specifics we’re looking for — and is far more relevant to the present moment than eight-year-old history.

Also: If there is indeed a clear and present danger — the crux of the argument — we’re not convinced that the appropriate means to address it is military. (The FBI broke up the subway plot, with an assist from Scotland Yard.) It may very well be, but we’re not told enough to dissuade us from the notion that every problem is a nail, and the Army’s a hammer.

Finally, a coda:

And the stakes are even higher within a nuclear-armed Pakistan, because we know that al Qaeda and other extremists seek nuclear weapons, and we have every reason to believe that they would use them.

We would have preferred to hear a lot more about this, since there’s a strong case to be made that the security of Pakistani nukes is a serious issue. (We’re not the ones to make it, but we’ll listen.) But in the context of the speech, it’s really an afterthought.

And, well, that’s it — out of 54 paragraphs, just two and a snippet that barely suggest why we’re going to the trouble. It’s like a Hummer with a lawnmower engine: sure looks impressive, but we doubt you’ll get very far with it.

Full Transcript Of Obama’s Remarks On Afghanistan [TPM]

As I’ve said before, this might have worked in 2002 when US America had the world’s goodwill and shit, but someone had OTHER priorities, fucked up priorities.

Too little, too late.

I hope I’m wrong.

I don’t, noje. This kind of I Believe For Ev’ry Drop of Rain That Falls, a Flower Grows speech is a literary artifact and has less to do with nuts and bolts than it has to do with conveying a sense of purpose. And I thought he did that well. I thought the background was done with skill: he reminded without apportioning blame. I thought the answer to why Astan was not Vietnam was new. I certainly hadn’t heard anything like it before. Clearly, had he been in charge in 01 he wouldn’t have done what Bush did and we wouldn’t be in the same mess now. But it’s been done and he has to deal with it. And he did repeatedly stress that Afstan had the backing of NATO, which it did and does.

I keep remembering (this is not as frivolous as it might sound) of when I was assistant director on a big musical and the choreographer was staging a particular number that needed to communicate a frantic big-city urgency. He devised a step the dancers hated and which hurt them to rehearse. They bitched and moaned endlessly about it. The choreographer was perfectly well aware of their feelings but persisted. When the number was finished, and the step put in context, it flashed across the stage, dominated for a moment and was gone. All the huffing and puffing was about nothing in the end. My point is we know almost nothing of what’s going on. We’re all chorus boys now. We have no clue what he’s got planned. He says they will start drawing back in 2011. The country cannot be allowed to collapse into another Somalia. I think we have a responsibility to at least try to do something positive. I might wish the military wasn’t in charge but then I have a deep and irrational loathing of everything to do with the military. If it were up to me I’d send ILM or Dreamworks in there because they know how to get shit done. They’d get the place organized sooner than you could say Phone Home!

@Benedick: Re “another Somalia,” hasn’t Afghanistan been a Somalia for several hundred years, if not longer, in the sense that there has not been a central government in the sense of the US or the UK, or even Saddam’s Iraq, but rather a loose collection of warlords and ethnic groups? Why would anyone think that this situation will change between now and 2011 or whenever our troops actually leave?

Hillary is up on the Hill explaining – apparently our nation is in danger if we don’t throw more money at Afghanistan. Safe havens, blah blah blah, stabilize this, develop that. Do I recall hearing that there are less than 100 al Qaeda in the whole country? Sigh.

Look, I’ve never lived in Afganistan. I don’t know dick about the country or its social structures or if it can even be called a country by our terms. I have read that Kabul was once lush and successful. I don’t know.

Before my screaming at the TV became too intense last night I did see a smirking O’Reilly say that Obama was no Churchill. As if Churchill went out with a bren gun and mowed down narzies himself. He didn’t. He made speeches. Very good ones. He visited places and shook hands. And he kept saying the war could be won when everyone believed it was lost and that it was only a matter of time before London fell. Even after Dunkirk he kept doing this. I thought Obama was following very much in this tradition and I think we should be careful before writing him off.

He has stopped ‘War on Terror’ talk, he repeated his intention to close Guantanamo, he announced that he had stopped the use of torture. I know there are many things that have no been done but I think we must look at the realm of the possible. Look at what he’s up against. Not just the Republicans but his own party, plus the military, plus a propaganda machine the like of which we’ve not seen before. I think he handled himself with real distinction.

the first thing I thought of is this is going to please no one.
I mostly agree with Benedict. I didnt think it was a terrible attempt to explain a terrible situation and how we got into it. I did think he could have spent a little more time on why its important to do what he wants to do.
there was very little talk of Pakistan. which is what is on most peoples mind. he seemed to avoid the subject. talking about the “border regions” like there was no other country involved. Pakistan is teetering and an imploded Afghanistan could push it over the edge. that would be bad. I wish he had said that but I guess I understand why he did not. they need Pakistan and Pakistan needs us.
I also liked that he spent the first part of the speech explaining why it is now the clusterfuck it is and if we had kept our eyes on the ball it would not have been an “8 year war”.
all in all he gained a little respect in my eyes for making that speech. like I said. it pleased no one. any course of action based on polls would not have been the one he chose. I think its possible he thinks its the right thing to do.

about handling himself with distinction.
yes. that struck me most too. there were no bumper sticker slogans in that speech. no sloganeering. how refreshing.
very little even of the soaring rhetoric. it was a nuts and bolts speech about getting from here to there.

I got me a new old sewing machine. I am going to learn to sew. I am going to make a new canvas enclosure for my flying bridge, and then I am going to make a big awning for over my front steps, and then then I am going to start designing women’s clothing. I likes boobs, and I am going to make up new ways to wrap them!

man sewing machines are hard. I bought one once. I always watched my mother doing it and thought ‘how hard can it be?’
I found out. I ended up giving it away. but I wish I could sew.
it is a very convenient thing to be able to do.

@Prommie: I likes boobs, and I am going to make up new ways to wrap them! Good luck with that.

@Capt Howdy: It occurs to me that he couldn’t very well explicate much of what is intended without compromising allies. Particularly in Pakistan. But as before stated, I know dick.

I agree with Benedict, but mostly because of his adept use of ‘Bren gun’. However, I most definitely break with Prommie on the critical issue of our time: breasties. I endeavor to unwrap them, a piece in our time. That is, you might say, my Liberation Theology.

T/J I am reading rumors that the NY senate (alright, try to hold down the laughter in the back) might well vote on homo marriage today and I might yet live up to my moniker.

@Just Nabisco: … piece in our time. Excellent. Bravo. Champagne all round.

Big Tent Democrat over at talkleft has a long and, I think, pretty good post up on the presidents speech last night.

The President said “I want to speak to you tonight about our effort in Afghanistan — the nature of our commitment there, the scope of our interests, and the strategy that my administration will pursue to bring this war to a successful conclusion.” I think the speech should be judged on how well it fulfilled those three stated objectives.

Maybe we could hire the 3,000 to 4,000 Afghan insurgent “deadenders” who’ve defeated our $$$TRILLION$$$ military. They seem to be much better at the job.

Oh right, Raygun did that in the 80s. Oops.

@Prommie: The only question now is whether you should go on Project Runway or Top Chef.

Do you like boobs a lot? (Yes, I like boobs a lot.) Boobs a lot, boobs a lot. (You gotta like boobs a lot.) Really like boobs a lot. (You gotta like boobs a lot.) Boobs a lot, boobs a lot. (You gotta like boobs a lot.) Down in the locker room, Just we boys, Beatin’ down the locker room With all that noise, Singin’ do you like boobs a lot? (You gotta like boobs a lot.) Boobs a lot, boobs a lot. (You gotta like boobs a lot.) Do you wear your jock a lot? (Yes, I wear my jock a lot.) Got to wear your jock a lot. (Got to wear your jock a lot.) Jock a lot, jock a lot. (You gotta wear your jock a lot.) Got to wear your jock a lot. (You gotta wear your jock a lot.) ‘Cause, down on the football, Football field, You never can tell What a heel can wield, So you gotta wear your jock a lot. (You gotta wear your jock a lot.) Jock a lot, jock a lot. (You gotta wear your jock a lot.) If I had a flag-a-long, (If I had a flag-a-long.) If I had a long flag-a-long, If I had a long flag-a-long, If you like boobs a lot, tag along Bee beep, bop, de boob a lot. (You gotta like boobs a lot.) Boobs a lot, boobs a lot. (You gotta like boobs a lot.) They’re big and round, They’re all around. They’re big and round, They’re all around.

@Prommie: That’s one of the most touching things I ever read.

Oh, and T/J II. It seems the NY senate (I can’t even type that without laughing) is indeed about to ‘debate’ homo union and is it good for the childrenz. Reuben Diaz has retired to his office to pray.

And our forces lack the full support they need to effectively train and partner with Afghan security forces and better secure the population.

If the Frenchies were occupying my country and supporting the Crips, training them to go after the Bloods, and my loved ones just happened to get caught in the crossfire, I’m not sure I would be able to give them my full support, even if I admired their pop culture.

Where have we heard this exact same thing before?

@blogenfreude: Exactly.

@Benedick, Capt Howdy: I’m sorry, but this isn’t Project Runway. Elegant statesmanship isn’t enough.

@Original Andrew: Exactly.

here is a comment from another blog that I agree with completely:

Someone got close. Some islamic Talibanish fundy got a little too close to having themselves a Pak nuke or they had a good plan for it. This is a decisive strike and we will pound the Taliban now. Long term planning of stabilizing Afghanistan is secondary, maybe not even on the table given the other priorities that our own country has to address at this time. You don’t blitz combat 30,000 troops into anyplace and back out for no reason other than you have an immediate threat on your hands. In 18 months perhaps he will take a look at some kind of stabilization plan but that isn’t what we are doing right now. Right now we are hitting the Taliban real quick and hard.

this president is not happy about this. he did not want to do this. you could see it in his face. he has been convinced, and not at all for political reasons, that he has to do this. IMO the covert war stuff is just cover for the covert CIA war they are about to unleash in Pakistan.

@Capt Howdy: I’m in agreeance with you, as a lawyer I know says all the time to my great annoyance. Something tangible happened on the secret side of things.

@Capt Howdy: I think the speech should be judged on how well it fulfilled those three stated objectives.

The most interesting — and contentious — thing about any philosophical argument is the premise. Grant that, and you might as well give the rest away.

@Benedick: Gawd, I love you. Who else would make that analogy? No one, that’s who. You’re one of a kind, Benedick. One. of. a. kind.

that was a little odd. to be generous I think he probably was talking about the success of the speech itself in political terms.

Funny. No one seems to have asked the Afghan people if they’d like for us to continue invading and bombing their country.

@Original Andrew:
its really not about Afghanistan. here is yet another comment from that other thread that I think sum things up well:

My impression of President Obama’s speech was a distillate of three major ingredients, an Afghanistan that is to be a staging area for our efforts in Pakistan in thwarting its further destabilization, to control the Pakistan/India volley, and a buy-off of Afghanistan in cash and security for use/occupation of their country. As for Afghanistan, I sense an eleven dimensional chess move:if there is no way out, go further in, with the companion expectation that the Afghan Taliban will lay in the weeds until our troops move on forcing Karzai to strike a deal before we leave. The timelines do not support much more for Afghanistan, and the dice has been rolled as to the effectiveness of keeping American forces, not in, but near, Pakistan to facilitate the defusing of that time bomb.

@Original Andrew: Well, they did just hold that election, and…

Oh. Right. Never mind.

to his credit this was not glossed over last night.

@Capt Howdy: I’m afraid I’m calling that glass half-empty…

Although a legitimate government was elected by the Afghan people, it’s been hampered by corruption, the drug trade, an under-developed economy, and insufficient security forces…

In Afghanistan, we and our allies prevented the Taliban from stopping a presidential election, and — although it was marred by fraud — that election produced a government that is consistent with Afghanistan’s laws and constitution.

Legitimate? Hampered? Marred? Consistent?

Afghanistan’s laws and constitution?

If not gloss, at least a coat or two of glaze.

well its hard to say much good about a fraudulent election. I guess I am still in comparing him to Bush mode. by not glossed over I guess I meant that he actually mentioned it and not in the context of lying about it which I found refreshing.
admittedly this is setting the bar rather low.
and as I said I hate defending Obama or anything he does so perhaps I will just shut the fuck up about it.
no ones mind will be changed in any case.

@Capt Howdy: admittedly this is setting the bar rather low.

You and the Nobel committee…

We have to get past the relief that he’s Not Bush, and hold him to the standards we would hold any president to — including Bush. Yes, he said that things weren’t rosy, but he elided the details to make his policy sound more grounded in legitimacy than it is.

We also have to get away from the notion that he must be defended at all costs, for fear of the alternative. This undermines our own perception and integrity, and leaves us in a position no better than the Bush cheerleaders of the past eight years.

In short: We have to see Obama for who he is, and take it from there. He’s still our sumbitch, but let’s not delude ourselves beyond that.

I am in no way deluded into thinking he needs to be defended at all costs.
I have reemed him plenty and often. it just happens that this time I think for many reasons he did if not the right thing at least what needed to be done. only time will tell who is right. and maybe not then. it may end up as muddled and unclear as it is now because of the covert nature of what I think is about to happen.


Wow. Never seen that ever. Not in any paper or on any TV station or Cable Network in the United States.

And, to my shame, it never occurred to me that they might have an opinion until just now.

Arrogance, thy name is “America”.

@Capt Howdy: Well, to be clear, there is no right thing — just a menu of bad alternatives. (I came close to using the fall of Saigon as the image for this post.)

Personally I think we’ve long since blown whatever opportunity we had there, our forces are exhausted, and simply leaving is not without consequence. But I’m not claiming a moral high ground. All I’m saying is that whatever Bad Option was chosen, we deserved a good explanation for it. And I didn’t hear it.

Nous sommes tous les garçons de choeur.

@Tommmcatt is hunkered down in the trenches: Unfortunately, it’s kinda like the cow having an opinion on the Big Mac.


“We are all boys of…” cabbage?

Having trouble with that one.


Well, voulez vous coucher avec moi to you too, mon ami.

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