The President’s West Point speech last night in which he essentially gave Gen. Stanley McChrystal three-quarters of the troops he asked for in Afghanistan and put McChrystal on an 18-month timer – in other words, debuting the two-minute drill as a war strategy – was, as his speeches usually are, well-delivered if a little wooden. That is seldom a major concern for Obama, whose ability to read off a teleprompter is impressive.
What is unfortunate is that, like most other policies the president purveys to the American people, this policy is underpinned largely upon fundamental untruths.
The most significant of the lies expressed last night was the assertion that the policy Obama unveiled is a major departure from that of Obama’s predecessor. He said this last night:
When I took office, we had just over 32,000 Americans serving in Afghanistan, compared to 160,000 in Iraq at the peak of the war. Commanders in Afghanistan repeatedly asked for support to deal with the reemergence of the Taliban, but these reinforcements did not arrive. That’s why, shortly after taking office, I approved a long-standing request for more troops. After consultations with our allies, I then announced a strategy recognizing the fundamental connection between our war effort in Afghanistan, and the extremist safe-havens in Pakistan. I set a goal that was narrowly defined as disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al Qaeda and its extremist allies, and pledged to better coordinate our military and civilian effort.
The idea that the Bush administration was starving the effort in Afghanistan is one that Obama has been flacking to the American people for the best part of two years now, and no sooner did he regale the cadets at West Point with this fresh round of “Bush did it” than former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld immediately called him on it:
“In his speech to the nation last night, President Obama claimed that ‘Commanders in Afghanistan repeatedly asked for support to deal with the reemergence of the Taliban, but these reinforcements did not arrive.’ Such a bald misstatement, at least as it pertains to the period I served as Secretary of Defense, deserves a response.”
“I am not aware of a single request of that nature between 2001 and 2006. If any such requests occurred, ‘repeated’ or not, the White House should promptly make them public. The President’s assertion does a disservice to the truth and, in particular, to the thousands of men and women in uniform who have fought, served and sacrificed in Afghanistan.”
“In the interest of better understanding the President’s announcement last night, I suggest that the Congress review the President’s assertion in the forthcoming debate and determine exactly what requests were made, who made them, and where and why in the chain of command they were denied.”
It’s entirely possible that Rumsfeld has a case of the rabbit ears on this, though as a member of the previous administration he’s probably entitled to believe Obama’s rhetoric is aimed at him as often as not. What is more likely true, though, is that Obama is referring to troop requests made in 2008. Of course, the assertion that Bush’s “neglect” of the troops in Afghanistan in question comes from a November 2008 request by then- (and current) Secretary of Defense Robert Gates for 30,000 troops.
Except that Obama didn’t grant that 30,000. He sent 17,000 troops, with another 7,000 in support personnel, and in so doing he took a swipe at Bush by saying “This increase is necessary to stabilize a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, which has not received the strategic attention, direction and resources it urgently requires.”
Again – Obama criticized Bush for neglect of Afghanistan. He was then given a request for 30,000 troops and refused to grant the full request. And justified the smaller increase than was asked for – by citing Bush’s neglect of Afghanistan.
At that time, the infamous “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” controversy had its genesis. As the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward reported:
During the briefing, [Marine Brigadier General] Nicholson had told Jones that he was “a little light,” more than hinting that he could use more forces, probably thousands more. “We don’t have enough force to go everywhere,” Nicholson said.
But Jones recalled how Obama had initially decided to deploy additional forces this year. “At a table much like this,” Jones said, referring to the polished wood table in the White House Situation Room, “the president’s principals met and agreed to recommend 17,000 more troops for Afghanistan.” The principals — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; Gates; Mullen; and the director of national intelligence, Dennis C. Blair — made this recommendation in February during the first full month of the Obama administration. The president approved the deployments, which included Nicholson’s Marines.
Soon after that, Jones said, the principals told the president, “oops,” we need an additional 4,000 to help train the Afghan army.
“They then said, ‘If you do all that, we think we can turn this around,’ ” Jones said, reminding the Marines here that the president had quickly approved and publicly announced the additional 4,000.
Now suppose you’re the president, Jones told them, and the requests come into the White House for yet more force. How do you think Obama might look at this? Jones asked, casting his eyes around the colonels. How do you think he might feel?
Jones let the question hang in the air-conditioned, fluorescent-lighted room. Nicholson and the colonels said nothing.
Well, Jones went on, after all those additional troops, 17,000 plus 4,000 more, if there were new requests for force now, the president would quite likely have “a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment.” Everyone in the room caught the phonetic reference to WTF — which in the military and elsewhere means “What the [expletive]?”
Nicholson and his colonels — all or nearly all veterans of Iraq — seemed to blanch at the unambiguous message that this might be all the troops they were going to get.”
Obama then fired Gen. David McKiernan, his theater commander, in May. McKiernan was blamed for the downward direction of the war effort in Afghanistan, criticized for a cautious style and castigated for civilian casualties in theater as a result of U.S. attacks on Taliban militants. No one really complained about McKiernan’s ouster, and when he was replaced by McChrystal the conventional wisdom was that the perfect man for the job was being brought in – after all, McChrystal was the recognized counterinsurgency expert who had worked a miracle with the surge in Iraq.
Obama then took 90 days to accept McChrystal’s recommendation for 40,000 troops – undoubtedly a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment for the rookie president – and then short-changed his general in Afghanistan once again, giving him 30,000 and imposing an 18-month deadline to clean out the Taliban and train up an Afghan army which has accomplished little in eight years of American tutelage. It’s such a tentative and ineffectual position that even MSNBC’s Chris Matthews and CBS’ Bob Schieffer professed themselves at a loss to understand it.
But today, Obama trotted out his head flack Robert Gibbs to clean up the mess. That resulted in this exchange between Gibbs and ABC’s Jake Tapper:
TAPPER: Former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld took issue with a lot of the speech last night, and I just wanted to clarify it. The president said commanders in Afghanistan repeatedly asked for support to deal with the reemergence of the Taliban, but these reinforcements did not arrive. I assume you’re referring to the McKiernan requests throughout 2008.
GIBBS: Well, I — that’s, I believe, what the speech — the line of the speech. I will let Secretary Rumsfeld explain to you and to others whether he thinks that the effort in Afghanistan was sufficiently resourced during his tenure as secretary of defense.
TAPPER: Well, he says…
GIBBS: I — I think that’s — that’s something that, you know…
TAPPER: … he said he’s not aware of a single request of that nature between 2001 and 2006 when he was secretary of defense.
GIBBS: I — again, I’ll let him explain to the American public whether he believes that the effort in Afghanistan during 2001 to 2006 was appropriately resourced. You know, you go to war with the secretary of defense you have, Jake.
TAPPER: That’s cute. The — the question, though, is what specifically was President Obama talking about when he said that?
GIBBS: Again, what President Obama was talking about were additional resource requests that came in during 2008, which we’ve discussed in here. But Jake, again, I’ll leave it to the secretary of defense in 2001 to 2006 to discuss the level of resourcing for that — understanding the level of commitment that we already had dedicated in Iraq, and whether or not he feels sufficient that history will judge the resourcing decisions that he made during that time period in the war in Afghanistan were or were not sufficient.
TAPPER: OK. And some progressive Democrats on the Hill have said today that they think that the president should pursue a war authorization for the surge of troops. Are you guys thinking about doing that at all or…
GIBBS: No, I think the president…
TAPPER: …do you think the 2001 authorization…
GIBBS: Yes, I think the president made very clear last evening that — why we are there now. The conditions for what happened on September 11th brought our forces, through an almost unanimous vote of Congress, to Afghanistan. And obviously that is inordinately — it’s plenty sufficient for what the president is talking about.
TAPPER: And if I may, just one more. In his March — in his March speech President Obama mentioned that if the Taliban returns to controlling Afghanistan it would be bad for human rights. And he specifically singled out women and girls. He did not mention human rights in Afghanistan. He talked about human rights more broadly, but last night he didn’t mentioned human rights in Afghanistan and he definitely didn’t mention specifically women and girls.
GIBBS: Well, I believe in — I believe in the context of the three pillars that he saw, mentioning the basic recognition of human rights in Afghanistan is obviously important to what is happening there.
TAPPER: But he didn’t mention women and girls, and is that…
GIBBS: Again, I think the umbrella of basic human rights was — was the same thing.
TAPPER: So even though he mentioned it in March and he didn’t mention it last night, we’re not supposed to read anything into that at all?
GIBBS: I wouldn’t. I mean, I have not looked exactly at the word phrasing of each speech, but the umbrella of basic — recognizing the basic human rights of everybody in Afghanistan would include that, yes.
TAPPER: Thank you.
What to take from this? Other than that Gibbs is a boob, of course, and that Tapper can expose him as such with little effort.
The thought here is that the Obama administration is attempting to play style over substance. The left-wing base in Obama’s party was primarily motivated to support him as president out of animus about Bush’s wars, and was willing to forgive his platitudes about how Afghanistan was the “good” war while Iraq was merely a grab for resources on the part of Bush’s oilman buddies in Texas because they didn’t believe he meant a word of it. The cold, hard reality of Afghanistan, though, is that Obama has a stark choice either to get America out or to fight to win – middle-of-the-road measures are the surest avenue to defeat. And by choosing to send more troops there, Obama is betraying the hopes of that base. As such, he has to hide the ball in order to placate them – and so he’s going to return to his bread and butter; namely, demonizing the previous administration.
But just like everything where foreign policy is concerned, Obama simply doesn’t have it in him to commit to American victory. The generals get half a loaf, and it comes with an expiration date. That’s as strong as this president can get.
The problem is that it’s absolutely not enough. As Charles Hurt writes in the New York Post, Obama is asking our troops to die for a half-measure. Hurt’s colleague Ralph Peters says this is setting up the military to fail. And even in Der Speigel, Obama is getting crushed for weak leadership and duplicity. And that German publication hit the nail on the head by saying Obama’s speech was “the least truthful address he has ever held…He demanded sacrifice, but he was unable to say what it was for exactly.”
If the critics have it right, and we should all pray they don’t, then one of the surest casualties of this new initiative will be Gibbs – whose meager talents are surely no match for the challege of spinning a spineless, spurious and insufficient strategy in Afghanistan.