The Blog

What Obama Needs to Say at West Point

11:59 AM, Nov 30, 2009 • By FRED BARNES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

You can't fight a successful war unless the commander-in-chief is fully committed to it. So President Obama's chief task in his speech Tuesday night on Afghanistan is to make it absolutely clear that he is.

This won't be easy. Obama comes from the antiwar wing of the Democratic party that opposes the use of force in almost all instances. If he were still a senator and a Republican president were proposing a troop buildup in Afghanistan, Obama would probably be against it.

Obama has spent most of his political career comfortably inside the cocoon of his party's left wing. And he brought that faction's culture to the White House. It has created the unusual situation of a president and his advisers who are normally, even reflexively, antiwar but who now have a war on their hands, on their watch, and as their responsibility.

It's true that Obama championed Afghanistan as the "good war" in his presidential campaign last year. And as recently as August, he called it "a war of necessity." But his painful, three-month deliberation on what to do in Afghanistan severely undermined his prior statements.

The point is legitimate doubts about Obama's tenacity in Afghanistan -- his level of commitment -- abound in the military, among allies whom Obama wants to deploy more troops, and with the American public. More than anything else, he needs to lay those doubts to rest in his address.

He won't succeed if he dwells on how quickly he hopes to begin winding down America's intervention in Afghanistan. Emphasizing an exit strategy would be counterproductive. He needs to concentrate on what's required and what he's ordering to prevail in Afghanistan.

Much ado over how difficult and emotionally wrenching his decision making process has been won't help either. All decisions on war are tough for presidents. That's a given. That's part of the job.

Nor should Obama attempt the impossible by trying to persuade antiwar Democrats to sign on to his plan for Afghanistan. They're a lost cause. If his plan is one they can support, it's a sure loser as a war strategy. Besides, appealing to the hard-core left would only weaken his case for beefing up the effort in Afghanistan.

Obama talks about himself to a fault. No matter what the issue, he tends to treat it as essentially all about him. Well, for once, it is all about him and his commitment to defeating the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

How committed is he? That's what the world wants to know. NATO allies won't be inclined to send more troops if Obama sounds half-hearted. The downward drift of public support for the war here at home won't be halted either. The military's qualms about Obama won't dissolve.

Obama ought to use the word "victory," but he doesn't have to. That is, so long as he backs most or all of General Stanley McChrystal's call for more troops and a more rigorous counterinsurgency strategy. He must publicly close any gap that exists between his thinking and McChrystal's.

Without equivocation, he should stress the goal of winning in Afghanistan and wiping out the threat to American security that the Taliban and al Qaeda pose. As Vince Lombardi said, winning isn't everything, it's the only thing.

The president needs to leave one strong impression: that it's his war and he intends to win it. That would not only allay the fears of the doubters but gain their support.