Omission Control

The media on everything Obama didn't say last night

Much of the post-speech analysis last night focused on what Obama didn’t talk about at West Point in his 33-minute discussion on Afghanistan strategy.

At CNN, in a glaringly bright 10,000 megawatt spaceship of a newsroom, Wolf Blitzer had a cavalcade of media stars to weigh in on the speech: political strategists Donna Brazile, Alex Castellanos, Paul Begala, Mary Matalin at one table and journalists Christiane Amanpour, Barbara Starr, Nic Roberston, John King, Michael Ware, Fareed Zakaria, Anderson Cooper, Campbell Brown, and Dr. Sanjay Gupta (huh?) at the other.

“The president delivered a very, very detailed speech,” Blitzer said. “But he left out some critical details as far as Afghanistan is concerned.”

Details like women’s rights in Afghanistan, or any kind of moral imperative to be in Afghanistan at all, Castellanos said.

“The president didn’t bring up the issue of human rights tonight,” Castellanos said. “We’re talking about a country that could suffer a devastating blow if the Taliban returns, women, children.”

Amanpour jumped in on the absence of any mention of the Afghan poppy fields that supply the largest opium drug trade in the world.

“What you actually didn’t hear is almost anything about the whole civilian effort under which drug control does fall,” she said. “It was remarkable in the lack of detail.”

Over at the New York Times Web site, Jeff Zeleny live-blogged the speech, pointing out that Obama didn’t include the usual anecdote from a Joe-the-Plumber type stakeholder.

“The speech was notable for Mr. Obama because unlike most of his other major addresses, it did not include any personal anecdotes,” Zeleny wrote. “There were no specific stories of soldiers he has met or families he has consoled. Instead, Mr. Obama braced Americans for the difficulty ahead and sought to put the fight in the context of history.”

Both WNYC radio host Brian Lehrer – in a live chat – and the Los Angeles Times media critic James Rainey – on Twitter – pointed out that Obama didn’t say the Bush 43 buzzword, “win” a single time, instead characterizing the end game thusly, “We must come together to end this war successfully.”

So the word cloud of Obama’s big speech was missing a few notable keywords. But it did include Obama’s favorite phrase, “Now let me be clear,” not once but twice. So since he’s being clear, let’s listen to what he did say: “As President, I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests.”

That single sentence, along with all the sentences that Obama never uttered, says it all. As Zakaria pointed out on Anderson Cooper’s show following Wolf Blitzer, there was a reason all those words and phrases and issues were not mentioned in the speech. Controlling the drug trade, improving women’s rights, “winning” a war, spreading democracy – in short – nation building; that’s not why we’re there in Obama’s view.

COOPER: Kandahar is not going to become a shining city on a hill; we just need it under control?
ZAKARIA: But the key here, Anderson, is, this is actually something that Obama does talk about in the speech. I mean, we have all focused on how the speech is about the surge, about the buildup.

But, if you read the speech, it’s really about the limitation of the goal. The goal is al Qaeda. He never mentions the Taliban when talking about the core mission, doesn’t talk about nation-building, doesn’t talk about drugs much, doesn’t talk about…


COOPER: In fact, you had Robert Gibbs, I believe, earlier today saying on another — on television, this is not nation-building.

ZAKARIA: Right. This is — this is almost a scaling-back. He’s — what I think he is trying to do — it’s a very difficult balance — and I think David is right, that he is looking for a mean — is to say, we need to be here. We need to chase these guys around, because they’re bad people who want to do bad things to us.

But our — there are limits to our interests and our involvement. We are not going to be there — no, this is not World War II. This is not a battle to the end.

Crystal clear.

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Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.