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The West Point Speech

While the US president may have taken a much longer time to deliberate on the Afghan war strategy than his predecessor did on Iraq, the style in which he will announce his plans will be exactly the same.

Last modified: 30 Nov 2009 19:41
Photo by EPA

On Tuesday, Barack Obama, the US president will go before cadets at the US Military Academy at West Point - and a national and worldwide television audience - to announce his plan and strategy for Afghanistan.

He’s expected to say he will send something in the order of 30,000 extra troops, perhaps as many as 35,000. He is also going to outline a plan and a time frame for turning responsibility for the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda over to the shaky and corrupt Afghan government, so that American forces can be brought home eventually.

I think the actual number of troops is not the important thing. 30,000 or 40,000 or even 100,000 or 300,000 troops would still be too few, if the goal is to entirely wipe out the Taliban. What is important is how Obama conveys to the American people the mission in Afghanistan.

As one analyst puts it, the strategy is how you accomplish the mission - the mission is what you want to accomplish. So what is it? The White House is putting out a lot of leaks about “exit ramps” and an end-game. Presumably that means putting in more troops, and then pulling most them out sooner rather than later.

Obama will likely say the US’s commitment to Afghanistan is not open-ended, while at the same time reassuring the Afghans and Pakistanis that the US will maintain some level of American presence in Afghanistan for a long time to come. It is a position and a plan that seems self-contradictory on several levels, and it is going to be hard to convince sceptical Americans that it is the right one. Inevitably, with the bar raised by a three-month-long period of study and pondering of options, Obama’s speech will not meet everyone’s expectations.

Then there is the whole issue of “planning”. George Bush started the Iraq war without much of a plan other than to smash the regular Iraqi army and Republican Guard and chase Saddam Hussein out of power. The real war that developed afterwards was not part of anyone’s plan. Obama wants to show (once again) that he is the Anti-Bush. Instead of off-the-cuff, impulsive “gut” calls in the style of the Decider, he deliberates, discusses, and debates - for months, in fact.

But war creates its own logic, and its own momentum. War doesn’t go according to plan. War tends to beget more war. So even the most carefully worked out plans are only good until the first shot is fired.

Finally, there is the setting. Here, Obama becomes not so much the Anti-Bush as his mirror image. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech aboard an aircraft carrier told US troops and the US public the Iraq war was basically over and no-one really had to worry about getting killed in Iraq anymore. The sailors on board the USS Abraham Lincoln were used as a patriotic backdrop, a kind of human bunting.

On Tuesday, Obama’s speech will signal to the West Point cadets and the public that more Americans are going to fight and die in Afghanistan. The message is the opposite of Bush’s moment of hubris in 2002, but the staging and made-for-prime time showbiz aspects are exactly the same.

Cynics - like me - would say that a lot of young men and women in uniform are again being manipulated as props. Why not just make the speech from the Oval Office, the way earlier TV-era presidents did? Because a patriotic backdrop and cheering cadets make the job of marketing a war easier.  It’s the same old story, and somehow, a lot of people expected better of Mr Obama.