President's Speech Muddles Nation-Building and National Defense

President Obama's speech at West Point aimed to walk the line between nation-building and national defense. But he muddled the two concepts.

Americans look to their wartime leaders for clarity, not ambivalence. The president began his Afghanistan war speech by implicitly promising to say what it will take "to bring this war to a successful conclusion." Not victory, but a "conclusion"...and a "successful" one at that. But he didn't do it.

It will, however, take eighteen months of continued U.S. military action, soon to be escalated by 30,000 troops. We'll also need a responsible Karzai government that oversees the building of an Afghan nation that can take over the fight, along with the continued and increased involvement of a Pakistan that should know that it, too, is threatened by the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

All this is to happen in the context of defending the national security interests of the United States. Yet the president stated, "I am convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan." Seems we're outsourcing our national security.

Plainly stated, the president said that we'll give the war eighteen more months of our military action, after which our national security there will become the responsibility of the Afghan and Pakistani governments. It's up to you guys to protect us.

You can make the case that such was the motive for our aid to Western Europe after World War II. A free and economically vital Europe was a buttress against the expansionist USSR.  But World War II in Europe didn't begin with an attack on America. We helped rebuild -- and for decades, defend -- Western Europe in order to also keep it from incorporation into the Soviet sphere.

Did you get that feeling about his interest in the freedom of the people of Afghanistan from the President's speech?

In the president's clumsy balancing act between nation-building and national defense, it's to become the responsibility of a rehabilitated Karzai government and Pakistan, grateful for U.S. financial aid, to be America's front-line protection. And what if Pakistan doesn't deliver? The president said, "We cannot tolerate a safe haven for terrorists whose location is known and whose intentions are clear." Is that a threat to Pakistan? Again?

By the president's own admission, this isn't about nation-building. He said, "Indeed, some call for a more dramatic and open-ended escalation of our war effort -- one that would commit us to a nation building project of up to a decade. I reject this course because it sets goals that are beyond what we can achieve at a reasonable cost, and what we need to achieve to secure our interests." 

So national defense must be purchased at a "reasonable cost." Anyone remember the scene in the movie The Best Years of Our Lives where Fredric March gives the satirical bank speech about the role of collateral on the battle field?

Nor did the president wholeheartedly commit our nation to its own defense. "Taken together, these additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces, and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011." Eighteen months and we're out of here. And before the next general election, coincidentally.

With the always vague codicil of "taking into account conditions on the ground," we will, the president said, withdraw our combat forces from Afghanistan in a year and a half. So there's an expiration date stamped on the President's decision to send more troops to Afghanistan.  After that, it'll cost too much to stay. National defense has assumed a price limit.

The threshold for departure is the same as what the president attaches to our eventual withdrawal from Iraq -- a "responsible end." But wait, he said: The goal in Afghanistan "remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future."

If one party suffers "defeat," then the other must necessarily accomplish relative victory, yes?  But the president has already said that "victory" reminds him of the Japanese surrender on the USS Missouri. Surrender is too humiliating, perhaps. So, we're leaving when it's reasonable. Of all collective human endeavors, war is the most unreasonable, and those who fight it reasonably lose.

In his post-speech analysis, FOX News' Bill O'Reilly said, "If the Afghans don't fight for their freedom, we ought to get out. If Karzai is hopeless, we should acknowledge it." Is that a national defense mindset, or a nation-building mindset? With regard to the omnipresent comparisons to Vietnam: Once upon a time, I saw enough dead South Vietnamese soldiers to be persuaded that they did, indeed, fight.

The close of the president's speech transitioned into a rehash of recent themes associated with his continuous-campaign-mode. We heard for the umpteenth time that "we have at times made mistakes." I'm feeling so guilty, I'm contemplating therapy.

And yet again, we heard the president say, "I have prohibited torture and will close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. And we must make it clear to every man, woman and child around the world who lives under the dark cloud of tyranny that America will speak out on behalf of their human rights, and tend to the light of freedom, and justice, and opportunity, and respect for the dignity of all peoples. That is who we are. That is the moral source of America's authority."

It would have been totally out of character and unacceptable for a West Point cadet to stand up, like Rep. Joe Wilson did, and say, "Oh, sure, and that's why it took so long for you to be critical of the Iranian tyrants for shooting their own people who were protesting for their freedom, justice, and dignity!"

At the close of his speech -- one delivered in a place steeped in the historical culture of comradeship, shared suffering, and fidelity to duty, honor and country -- the president said that we cannot allow ourselves to be "split asunder by the same rancor and cynicism and partisanship that has [sic] in recent times poisoned our national discourse." Who're "we"?

The cadets in his audience know better than the president that rancor, cynicism, and partisanship do not wear the uniform. Only once in our history has this been untrue: the era of those broken bonds between West-Point-trained Army officers whose friendships were destroyed by the politicians who paved the bloody road to the American Civil War.  
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