President just too cool

After nearly 100 days of conducting a comprehensive review of our longest-ever war in Afghanistan, President Barack Obama gave the most important speech of his career to detail his new strategy Tuesday, leaving his doubters doubting, his critics criticizing and his supporters struggling to explain how and why our commander in chief actually made the sale.

Through the entire process, until just before Obama announced his new war strategy at West Point on Tuesday night, administration officials continued to tell the media the president wasn’t “happy” with his options. Ultimately he split the middle, a risky but vintage Obama decision; he is a president who is loath to choose a side. Given the circumstances and consequences we face in Afghanistan, Obama may have chosen not only the most practical course but the wisest one: The fight needs more than we have given, but it cannot last forever. Still, in attempting to sell a contradiction to skeptics — that we must escalate to “finish the job” — Obama was vague and unconvincing. Many Americans may never accept that Obama’s new plan is the right one, but they at least want to believe he thinks it is the right one. Offering more references to the abysmal economy than specifics about critical aspects of his plan, Obama never managed to convey his resolve, exactly why he thinks this time this will work.

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As he looked into the sea of faces of young men and women he could send to Afghanistan, and who could never return, Obama said he would finally provide the military the proper tools, resources and strategy in Afghanistan, though not for victory. The goals are to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda,” which Obama made clear is threatening Pakistan, but for the Taliban, which threatens Afghanistan, he said the goal is only to reverse its momentum and “deny it the ability to overthrow the government.”

The central tenet of Obama’s stand-down-as-they-stand-up, “not nation building” strategy is now building capacity in Afghanistan by improving its own security forces. But in his speech he paraphrased this and withheld details. Our own assessments of our ability to grow the Afghan police and military are grim: With 25 percent of the population illiterate and 25 percent of the recruits dropping out, the challenges for our military trainers are enormous. Yet Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s goal of increasing the Afghan army to 240,000 and the police to 160,000 by 2013 is the crux of the new strategy — why didn’t Obama mention this?

And if “the days of providing a blank check are over,” and we may begin to withdraw troops in 18 months, just what would we ask of the corrupt government of Hamid Karzai with our 30,000 new troops? Obama opposed the 2007 Iraq surge, and refused during his presidential campaign to characterize it as a success, stating that the Iraqis hadn’t made significant political progress. For his own surge, Obama hasn’t identified what political progress for the government in Kabul would look like, save for his statement that “we will support Afghan ministries, governors and local leaders that combat corruption and deliver for the people.”

After a tough first year in office, managing two wars and intractable problems overseas, a disastrous economy, a divided Democratic Party, an emboldened political opposition and an anxious, angry nation, Obama has continued to keep his trademark, dispassionate cool. But there is surely no Zen in war. President Obama will need to do more to keep the American people on board as he sends 30,000 more men and women into battle. Though he won’t be happy about it, he should at long last find some fight.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.