As the crow flies
The issue that has caused the most controversy is his statement that our troops will begin to come home in July 2011.
Critics say that this sends the wrong signal to the Afghan people; that if they think we’re leaving in less than two years, they won’t trust us to protect them in the first place; and that, in any case, the Taliban will simply lie low and “wait us out.”
This complaint misreads the policy. The key word in Obama’s speech was that in July 2011, the United States will “begin” to transfer responsibility for security to the Afghan forces. The pace of this transfer—how quickly we will continue to withdraw and at what point we’ll get out altogether—will be determined by “conditions on the ground.” (Obama may not have underscored this phrase, but in a background press briefing earlier in the day, “senior officials” emphasized it strongly; one predicted that it would be the most misunderstood and misreported part of the speech.)
I’ve read so many analyses and reviews and play-by-plays of Obama’s West Point speech (transcript; White House Fact Sheet) that my head is kind of spinning with thoughts, but the above point is essentially what I thought when I watched the speech. Obama gave just enough definition to the action he was authorizing to appease the elements of his political base who do not want the United States to be at war; similarly, he gave a fair-sized rhetorical space in which to direct a draw-down–which is to say, he built in a way to withdraw and remain simultaneously with no firm commitment to a date or time.
I will say, though, that I agree with Ricks and with the underlying theme of Andrew Sprung’s analysis: this was a pragmatic explanation of a decision thoroughly weighted, and not a patriotic call to arms. It was an assessment, laid out rationally, that offers a conclusion; not a sweeping muddle of vacuity styled as a plan. To my philosopher mind, I thought he did a superb job of reviewing several premises, challenging or reaffirming them, and re-articulating and outlining his strategy in theatre.
But I’ll admit, I hope the State of the Union is a little more rousing. There’s wasn’t much rise and fall in this sucker–which was entirely appropriate.