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Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail
Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail

Clifford Orwin

Obama's Afghan moment Add to ...

You don't have to be a pundit to grasp the challenges confronting Barack Obama in preparing his speech of Tuesday night. So beleaguered is he both at home and abroad that you can't even say with confidence that Afghanistan will prove his defining issue. What you can say is this speech not only could not please everyone, but was likely to satisfy almost no one.

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The Afghan war is for Mr. Obama what the "war on terror" was for George W. Bush: the issue he didn't run on but can't run from. True, Mr. Bush could not have foreseen 9/11, while Afghanistan did surface in Mr. Obama's campaign speeches. Let's face it, though: No one voted for Mr. Obama because of his enthusiasm for the Afghan war. The Democrats' commitment to the conflict has long been suspect. Sure, they delighted in presenting it as the good war that Iraq was not, but only to flay the Bush administration. "Troops out of Iraq, troops into Kandahar!" Did anyone hear that chant at Mr. Obama's rallies?

And that was back before it was clear to most Americans how badly things were going in that faraway place, what a mess neighbouring Pakistan was, how dire the fiscal situation in which the war would now have to be waged, and how little help the United States could expect from all but a tiny handful of its allies. And Mr. Obama's capacity to overcome such formidable obstacles to persuasion has ebbed along with the standing he enjoyed in the early months of his presidency.

Tuesday night, he made a brave effort. His speech was clear, logical and comprehensive. It made the case that had to be made, and met, carefully and respectfully, the objections that had to be met. He began by reminding Americans of 9/11 and its aftermath, when the world united with the United States in deeming this a necessary war. He drove home its strategic importance as the crucial focus of a global war against extremism. He sought to link it to the idealism of his presidential campaign, hoping to convince his core supporters that this was still the Barack Obama they'd elected.

At the same time, he placed the current conflict firmly in the lineage of the Second World War and the Cold War. There were no apologies for America's role in the world. This was a speech appropriate to setting and audience, West Point and its Corps of Cadets.

The policy announced is an obvious hybrid: hawkish in substance, dovish in duration. Yes, General Stanley McChrystal will receive only 30,000 of the requested 40,000 troops. Otherwise, Mr. Obama's pulling out the stops in a multipronged effort to clear and hold critical territory, foster Afghan development and screw more co-operation out of unreliable allies both Pakistani and European.

So far, this is the escalation sought by those who have sought escalation. It's the Iraq surge transposed to Afghanistan, with the same intention of winning through splitting the opposing forces. Yet, Mr. Obama also did what most supporters of a surge have opposed: He time-stamped it. He promised to begin withdrawing troops in 18 months. That's tiny given the magnitude of the task, and the correlation of this deadline with the U.S. election cycle has given some commentators pause. It remains to see just how harmful this element will be in encouraging the Taliban to lie low - 18 months is but a catnap to them - as it does how helpful it will be in maintaining domestic support.

Mr. Obama hasn't actually promised to withdraw these extra troops in 18 months. "Begin withdrawing" is a phrase designed for wiggle room. Still, he will face opposition within his own party to deploying them much longer than that.

Twenty pundits, 20 assessments of the prospects for success. There are so many variables in Afghanistan, ranging from bad to worse. But Gen. McChrystal and the battle-hardened army are ready to go, the Karzai government is on notice and Pakistan has been behaving better lately. The odds remain daunting, but so were they before the surge in Iraq.

It's a president's job to decide, and it was high time for Mr. Obama to do so. Nothing has contributed to the erosion of his prestige so much as his perceived irresolution. In foreign affairs as in domestic ones, ill-considered gambits have petered out in wavering and reversal. Thus far, Mr. Obama has talked a better game than he's played. He has reminded us of the power of speech in politics, and of its limits. Of all the decisions of his young presidency, this is the one that both friend and foe must find adamantine in its firmness. Not just because the matter is so important in its own right (although it certainly is) but because the last thing he needs just now is a further loss of credibility.

Next up: Iran. And you thought al-Qaeda was dangerous.

Clifford Orwin is professor of political science at the University of Toronto and distinguished visiting fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

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