West Point Reaction Roundup

Summarizing reactions to Obama's Afghanistan speech

A new war strategy consists of more than a speech, of course. But President Obama’s address to cadets at West Point last night was an event that focused the nation’s attention on the conflict in Afghanistan. So how did the press go about explaining and assessing the president’s new approach? CJR’s staff kept tabs on some of the early coverage, and offers this initial roundup.

On CBS, Katie Couric anchored a solid—if somewhat frantic—post-speech discussion that brought in eight different contributors in less than twenty minutes. Bob Schieffer kicked things off by asking the question on the minds of many observers: If this war is essential to national security, as the president argued, how we can set a date to begin departing 18 months in advance? “I don’t understand how you can set a deadline on what you’re going to do,” he said. “This is not a football game where you can set a clock when the time runs out.”

Couric pushed back, but the argument was picked up again by Sen. John McCain, who, like many conservatives, supports the troop increase but not the timetable. (McCain also said, oddly, that Afghan President Hamid Karzai knows he’d likely be “assassinated” without American troops to support his government.) From the Democratic side of the aisle CBS featured Rep. David Obey, who has recently been pushing the idea of a “war surtax” to pay for the effort. Couric dismissed that idea as “political suicide,” but still, it was good to see the view that the war should be paid for accorded some airtime.

CBS’s roster of correspondents generally had interesting things to say. Speaking from Bagram Air Force Base, Mandy Clark noted concern among Afghans, who worry that more troops will lead to more civilian
casualties. (As in the coverage elsewhere, no actual Afghans were heard from.) Juan Zarate offered a quick primer on the difference between counterinsurgency and counterterrorism (something the president didn’t do in his speech). And Lara Logan noted that the Taliban understands the importance of good government to the effort to defeat them—that’s why their strategy includes targeting Afghanistan’s most effective officials.

But it was Pentagon correspondent David Martin who delivered the most. While the 30,000 troops who will be deploying is technically fewer than the 40,000 Gen. McChyrstal requested, he said, the military brass is happy with the plan for a few reasons: the mission has been narrowed, from defeating the Taliban outright to shifting momentum and then handing off the fight to the Afghan Army; the geographic focus has been narrowed to population centers; and the pace of the troop increase has been accelerated. A couple of military spokesmen offered a very similar explanation in a conference call with bloggers later in the night; Martin had it earlier, and for a broad audience.

In general, the vagueness of the president’s remarks with respect to the actual conduct of the war would created a gap to be filled by reporters. Here, a couple of online journalists did strong work. At
The Washington Independent, Spencer Ackerman had a lengthy piece, clearly reported in advance, laying out the strategy. Though there’s more to the plan than the president
explained, Ackerman notes that unanswered questions remain.

Noah Shachtman, meanwhile, came up with a succinct but satisfying explanation of the new approach: it’s a “quick counterpunch,” designed to use the new troops to gain momentum in the battle in the short run and train up Afghan soldier who can take over the fight in the medium term (see his post here, or listen to his question beginning at about the twenty-six-minute mark of that conference call.)

In terms of analysis, Foreign Policy’s Marc Lynch thought the president “impressed, as always” (not a universally held opinion). But as to the plan, Lynch found it not “satisfying analytically.” The central tension, again: If the president really believes this war is essential to America’s national security, what is to make the timetable stuck?

His direct vow that the U.S. did not seek occupation or endless escalation was well said. But the problem is that such commitments are inherently non-credible. To quote that great IR theorist Drake, we hear you talking boo but we just don’t believe you. I haven’t heard anybody yet say that they believed that Obama would really start drawing down in June 2011, no matter what he says. And yet the strategy depends upon that commitment being credible, because that is what is supposed to generate the urgency for local actors to change.

And one minor note, on Obama’s use of that Eisenhower line about balancing costs and benefits. Andrew Exum was struck by it. Dan Drezner loved it. And Kevin Drum hated it.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.