"If I did not think that the security of the United States and the safety of the American people were at stake in Afghanistan," Barack Obama said, announcing his decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, "I would gladly order every single one of our troops home tomorrow." It was the most emotional moment of his address but it was a curious sentence, and an unsatisfying speech, defensive and slightly convoluted. Certainly, it was not a classic call to arms: nothing remotely like Shakespeare's Henry V at Agincourt or Winston Churchill during the Blitz, as conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer pointed out later.
The President made the best possible argument for a rather iffy proposition: the expansion of a war that is 51% necessary and 49% futile (or vice versa). But you can't argue a people into war, especially one that seems so indistinct and perplexing. Once you have made the decision to go, or to redouble your efforts, you must lead the charge passionately and, yes, with a touch of anger. Obama's attempt to do that, his peroration about the ideals that cause us to fight, was lovely but abstract: "It is easy to forget that when this war began, we were united bound together by the fresh memory of a horrific attack ... I refuse to accept the notion that we cannot summon that unity again." Absent the reference to Sept. 11, the closing paragraphs could just as easily have climaxed a speech announcing a campaign against global warming.
Ronald Reagan would have done it differently. He would have told a story. It might not have been a true story, but it would have had resonance. He might have found, or created, a grieving spouse a young investment banker whose wife had died in the World Trade Center who enlisted immediately after the attacks ... and then gave his life, heroically, defending a school for girls in Kandahar. Reagan would have inspired tears, outrage, passion, a rush to recruiting centers across the nation.
Of course, it is possible that purple prose in the service of patriotic gore has become an anachronism in an era when it is possible to witness the insane carnage caused by crudely constructed roadside bombs each night on the evening news. There are those, especially in the Democratic Party, who find such romanticism delusional and obscene; it rankles particularly when applied to a questionable war. But the romance of the fight, the band-of-brothers bond, the ethos of ultimate sacrifice is at the heart of military culture. If a President wants to send young people off to war, he must buy into that culture. It is not enough to construct the best argument or the best policy in a bad situation, as this President has done.
And that is the high drama that has been unfolding this autumn: the struggles of a highly intelligent, dispassionate man to find a rationale for a mission that is crucial but slightly crazy, a decision that will define his presidency.
"I am painfully aware that this is politically unpopular," the President said earlier that day over lunch with a group of columnists in the White House library, an elegant little room in the basement of the mansion. "It's least popular in my own party. But that's not how I make decisions." There was little apparent anguish as the President said that. He was calm, as always; a compelling presence, but resolutely normal, as always. (The combination of charisma and lack of pretense is his most attractive, if inexplicable, personal attribute.) His defense of the policy he had constructed after months of deliberation a complex, slightly contradictory contraption of a policy was solid but not entirely convincing.
He dealt fluently with the toughest of questions: the push-me, pull-you issue of sending in 30,000 more troops only to start withdrawing them in July 2011, less than a year after they all arrive. The troops as many as were involved in the Iraq surge, though in a much smaller war are being sent to stun the enemy, to turn back recent Taliban advances, especially in Kandahar province, the heartland of the insurgency. But why limit the force of the blow by announcing the date you will begin the withdrawal? "Why wouldn't they wait you out?" asked David Ignatius of the Washington Post.
It was a question the President was expecting. He said he rejected that argument "because if you follow the logic ... then you would never leave. Right? Essentially you'd be signing on to have Afghanistan as a protectorate of the United States indefinitely." And the time limit, he suggested, might give him leverage over Hamid Karzai, the recalcitrant Afghan leader: "In my discussion with President Karzai yesterday," Obama said, "I was able to articulate to him exactly what he's going to need to do over the next two years to be prepared for this transition."
I asked him what instructions he had given the military to make the next 30,000 troops more effective than the 21,000 troops he sent last March, whose presence didn't seem to improve the situation on the ground at all. "Look, the fact that there were increased casualties this year I think is to be expected from increased engagement by our forces." True enough, but the NATO coalition lost ground to the Taliban this year, by Obama's own admission. And the President could only come up with speed of deployment and a clearer sense of mission as strategic game changers. Later, when I asked him about what changes he had ordered for the training of the Afghan army and police a frustrating proposition, so far he deferred to his commanders in the field but said the new order of battle would include "a partnering situation, a one-to-one match between Afghan troops and U.S. troops" in combat, which "produces much stronger results."
Then he stopped, abruptly. "None of this is easy," he said. "I mean, we are choosing from a menu of options that is less than ideal." Indeed, over the past few months, I've heard members of the Administration make cases for and against each of the decisions the President has made. There is no completely convincing argument that 30,000 or 40,000 more troops will turn the tide in Afghanistan; you can make an argument, nearly as plausible, that they will make a bad situation worse Afghans have, historically, not reacted well to tens of thousands of armed foreigners on their turf. (Which leads in turn to a counter-counterargument: we're not conquerors; we come bearing schools and wells, with the intention of leaving as soon as possible.)