The Big Question: Will Obama's speech win support for the war?

Some of the nation's top political commentators, legislators and intellectuals offer some insight into the biggest question burning up the blogosphere today.

Today's question:

Jon Soltz, Iraq War Veteran and Chairman of VoteVets.org, said:

Will President Barack Obama's speech boost public support for the war in Afghanistan?

Any time a President rallies a nation, it will receive initial support.  But for the President to see that support continue, he has to answer some questions he didn’t address last night – especially on issues of how this war will affect our Armed Forces and the people who serve in them.  For instance, early in his administration, the President promised to end Stop Loss, increase Dwell Time (the amount of time home between deployments), and see deployments not go longer than the traditional 1 year maximum.  The strategy and timeline he set out last night seems to put that all in jeopardy.  With suicide, PTSD, and divorce rates in the military at all-time highs, how does the President reconcile the strain his strategy places on our men and women?  How can he guarantee he won’t break our force?  Until he settles those issues, and others, he risks seeing support quickly deteriorate as questions mount.

Michelle D. Bernard, President & CEO of the Independent Women’s Forum, said:

Only An Improved Situation on the Ground Will Significantly Change Attitudes About the War

I'm relieved that President Obama decided to recommitted the United States to creating a stable, secure Afghanistan. As the primary arena for today's War on Terror, Afghanistan's stability is important for U.S. security, and after years of engagement in the country, it's America's duty not to abandon the Afghan people — particularly Afghan women — to a future of chaos and despotic rule.

President Obama's speech likely won't change many opinions about whether or not we should remain engaged in Afghanistan.  Yet this President would be wise to consider his predecessor's experience.  Support for the War in Iraq could hardly have been lower when President Bush committed to the surge strategy.  Yet when Iraq became more secure, the issue became less radioactive.

Similarly, the public's opinion of the war in Afghanistan could certainly change if our prospects for a positive outcome improve.  It's in the President's interests -- both political and with regards to his fundamental duty as Commander-in-Chief to protect and defend the country -- to push for victory in Afghanistan.  Timetables for withdrawal are unwise, and will suggest to the enemy that they just need to outlast us.  These timetables are unlikely to make opponents of the war any more comfortable about his decision, and may undermine chances for success.  The President needs to recognize that his best hope in winning this issue politically is to win the battle on the ground.

Cheri Jacobus, Pundits Blog contributor, said:

For a man who has been so very committed to victory when it comes to his own political campaigns, President Barack Obama conveyed little of that same commitment to victory in Afghanistan with this speech last night at West Point.
 
America was already convinced we need more boots on the ground in Afghanistan, but Obama now has us all a bit nervous.
 
Rather than operating from a position of strength and certainty, Obama seems to have merely acquiesced to the request by General Stanley McChrystal. His delay and equivocating thus compromises confidence in what is unquestionably the most important and impactful decision of his presidency to date.
 
Obama’s “dithering” on Afghanistan telegraphs to Americans, Al Qaeda and the Taliban, as well as those around the globe who may doubt or be tempted to test American strength under the new-ish president, that he is not altogether comfortable in his role as Commander-In-Chief and the job requirement to make troop level decisions. Can he make even bigger, tougher decisions on war if the need arises? Can he do so in a timely fashion that enhances our chances for success and security rather than indecisive meandering resulting in a split decision in an attempt to placate political factions here at home?

Craig Newmark, founder of Craiglist, said:

Well, people are really glad to hear from a president who's making deliberate, smart decisions, hearing all sides, then acting decisively. In terms of public support, that matters. When given the facts, people prefer a president who faces reality.

Christopher A. Preble, director of Foreign Policy Studies at The Cato Institute, said:

President Obama’s speech was aimed squarely at the middle ground. Politically, the talk of a withdrawal date is necessary to quell American fears of an open-ended mission, already the longest war in American history. Strategically, he hopes to turn the military tide against the Taliban, stiffen the resolve of the Afghans, the Pakistanis and our NATO allies.

The president's problem -- and it is now America's problem -- is that this is a very tall order, and one that will not to be made easier by the introduction of an additional 30,000 troops. Defense Secretary Gates fixed on the dilemma several weeks ago when he pondered aloud: "How do we signal resolve and at the same time signal to the Afghans and the American people that this is not open-ended?"

It turns out you can't. The president's decision to deepen our commitment to Afghanistan, while simultaneously promising an exit, is ultimately absurd on its face.

While All Americans hope that the mission in Afghanistan turns out well, and have great confidence in the U.S. military, our troops can only do so much with a strategy that is shot full of contradictions and inconsistencies.

Michaeal T. McPhearson, executive director of Veterans for Peace, said:

In general the American people want to believe in their Presidents. We want to believe they have wisdom and knowledge that give them special abilities to solve problems. President Obama communicated his plans for Afghanistan in a well delivered speech. I think the majority of the public, for varying reasons, will give him room to operate for the next 15 to 18 months following his self imposed timeline. Democrats because they want to believe in him and Republicans because they want to see the war policy continued. However, the economy, the death of U.S. troops and the pictures of innocent Afghans may turn opinion and shorten patience quicker than expected. But for now he has time.

Bill Press, host of the "Bill Press Show," said:

Selling a war is always tough, for any president, and President Obama did the best job he could. But I still don't think he'll be successful in convincing the American people that this long war is worth continuing, let alone escalating. We can't afford another eight years in Afghanistan, but it looks like that's where we're heading.

Justin Raimondo, editorial director for Antiwar.com, said

A singularly ineffective speech. As I understand it, we have to fight in Afghanistan, because:

1) We were attacked on 9/11/01 – even though less than one hundred al-Qaeda are in the entire country.

2) The government of Pakistan is being undermined, and Pakistan has nuclear weapons – even though we aren’t going into Pakistan, except covertly, but we can’t acknowledge that in public.

3) The continental United States is endangered by the presence of jihadists in the region, where attacks on America are being planned – even though the 9/11 attacks were planned and executed in the US, and Hamburg, Germany, where the hijackers lived for years.

John F. McManus, president of The John Birch Society, said:

The speech by President Obama will likely change few minds. Those opposed to the continuation of this undeclared and therefore unconstitutional "war" will remain opposed.  Those in favor will, for a time, stay in favor. But sentiment favoring participation in this conflict will continue to wane. The significance of the president starting his speech with authorization for our nation's involvement emanating from NATO and the United Nations is highly significant and should not be overlooked.  He certainly didn't cite the U.S. Constitution to justify this "war"! NATO arose in 1949 as a U.N. regional arrangement. The speech added one more reason why the U.S. should withdraw from the U.N. and all its subsidiaries, and why the American people should demand that all U.S. officials get back to adhering to the limitations in the U.S. Constitution. 

Mike Ferner, president of Veterans for Peace, said:

Presidential speeches often raise public support for the president's position and it would not be surprising if this one did, too.
 
However, here's where public support is going now for the war:
 
A USA Today/Gallup poll asked if people approved or disapproved of the way Obama is handling the situation in Afghanistan and found that in July, 56 percent approved. Last week, 35 percent did. In July, 34 percent disapproved, and last week 55 percent disapproved.
 
That poll also asked if people thought the situation in Afghanistan was going well or badly?  In July, 54 percent said it was going well; last week 32 percent did. In July 43 percent said it was going badly; last week that rose to 66 percent.
 
CBS' poll numbers were considerably worse news for the administration.  Respondents who felt it was going well fell from 36% in July to 23 percent last week and those who thought it's going badly went from 55 percent in July to 69 percent last week. CBS also found that 32 percent wanted troop levels increased in Afghanistan, 20 percent wanted them to stay the same and 39 percent wanted them decreased -- or in other words, to start withdrawing.
 
So if Obama's speech creates a "bump" in support for the war, it will clearly be bucking the trend. Add to that, the fact that rushing troops into combat -- and there's no other way to describe what he plans -- will mean shorter notices for families.  More troops in the field will mean more casualties. Neither of those bode well for maintaining public support.
 
But notice what's behind the theme Obama repeated several times -- that he made these difficult decisions to protect the "best interests" of the United States, then defined those interests as primarily keeping us safe from additional attacks.  By nearly all measures, public support for the war is diminishing -- except in this one area: people's fear and insecurity.  Two weeks ago, a CNN poll asked if it was necessary for the U.S. to "keep its troops in Afghanistan NOW to prevent additional acts of terrorism in the U.S." 60 percent answered yes to that question and 39 percent said no. It begins to be a legitimate question if the only way to maintain support for this war is to create a permanently fearful population.
 
There are obviously many factors determining public support for this war.  One not mentioned last night is the level of support among the troops and their families. Over and over I talk with Vietnam veterans who are absolutely incredulous at how today's troops can withstand two, three, four and more combat deployments.  One thing that kept many people -- troops and their families -- sane during the Vietnam war was that everybody knew your tour was one year.  When you hit that 365th day in most cases you were gone, never having to return.  That is not the case now and the psychological toll it is taking has yet to be determined.  The big wild card in Obama's deck is this: what will happen when the steadily rising rate of PTSD gets to the point where troops and their families can simply take no more stress?
 
Besides those above factors I just described, Veterans For Peace is also making a concerted effort to connect the pain and suffering the economic crisis is causing Americans, with the pain and suffering of those directly in harm's way in this war.  It's as if the president, when he announced a 50% increase in the troop level in Afghanistan at the same time declared war on the struggling, increasingly desparate people of this country.  That is a "fear factor" not as easily predicted or manipulated as the fear of terrorist attack.

John Feehery, Pundits Blog contributor, said:

The President made the right decision on troops but he gave the wrong speech to inspire the American people.  He should have looked into the camera, and told the American people straight up that he was sending in more troops because he wanted to stop Islamic terrorists from attacking America.  Our troops need reinforcements.  They don't need long, self-reverential speeches that seek to score political points. 

Bernie Quigley Pundits Blog contributor, said:

No. Predictably, more of the same. The continuing Cheney/Obama incursions in Afghanistan and the east should now be looked at overall as a stimulus or leavening agent that has awakened Islamic identity by varying degree throughout the Islamic world and well across Europe. Secular Islamic women in Europe now weak the hijab – the Islamic scarf - as a symbol on non-Western identity. Muslims now conspicuously pray in the streets of Rome on Ramadan and build minarets in Switzerland. These are natural and instinctive processes of territorialization. In Manchester, England, where the working class was blue-eyed and red haired Catholic and C of E 100 years back much of it is now Islamic. Much of the real work in Europe today is being done by Muslims and the working people invariably inherit the cultural future. Thanks to Cheney/Obama we are seeing today the Islamization of Europe just as we saw the Islamization of Constantinople in 1453 by other means.