Heilemann: Obama’s Afghan War Trade

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Barack Obama's career on the national stage has been defined by big speeches, but the one he delivered at West Point last night was different in a crucial respect. In every other notable instance, the audience was innately on Obama’s side, inclined to agree with him, rooting for his success. But in unveiling his new strategy for Afghanistan, the president was confronting a fairly novel (for him) rhetorical challenge: to persuade his supporters to back him, or at least not to shred him, on an issue where many of them pretty much think he is dead wrong. And where, indeed, much of the country is increasingly of that opinion, too.

It will take some time before we know for certain how well Obama fared at this task. But on the face of it, the notion that the speech won many converts strikes me as implausible. Did Obama present a credible vision of an Afghanistan eighteen months from now that looks much better than it does now? No. Did Obama lay out a clear idea of what would constitute victory in the country or the Af-Pak region? No. Did Obama do anything to convince those who see Afghanistan as another Vietnam in the making (and there are some wise people in that category) that they are wrong? No.

What Obama did accomplish was something more basic and more grubby. In effect, he laid out the terms of a trade: We give him eighteen months and 34,000 additional troops, and he will begin the process of shutting the sucker down.

Indeed, of the 4,621 finely honed and carefully calibrated words in Obama’s speech, all paled beside “July 2011” in terms of political significance. With that date certain (well, sorta certain; see below), Obama was possibly, just possibly, able to gain the acquiescence of his base — which has always been the domestic challenge when it came to Afghanistan, at least once it was clear that escalation of some dimension was in the cards.

But by specifying a date to begin troop withdrawals, Obama has placed a sword of Damocles above his own head. When July 2011 comes, the likelihood is that Afghanistan will still be, to one degree or another, an awful mess. Then Obama will need to decide whether to begin the exit or not. If he does, the right will pummel him for cutting and running before the job is complete — and in the process, risking a damaging reversion to chaos. If he does not, the left is likely to explode. Mark my words, in this scenario we might well see Obama challenged in the 2012 Democratic-nomination fight from his left.

Sound far-fetched? Maybe, but it shouldn’t. With his speech last night, Obama took ownership of the Afghan war — and, though his arguments were more rigorous and cogent than George W. Bush’s would have been, he ended up in a distinctly 43-ish place. (His people are even calling the troop escalation a “surge,” for heaven’s sake.) How long will it take before the members of Obama’s base start muttering: "Change, my ass"?