Obama Pronounces on Afghanistan: Deja Vu All Over Again!

In a follow-up to his article on Obama and Afghanistan, Michael Hunt responds to President Obama’s speech at West Point last night, in which the President laid out his plan for additional troops and a timeline for withdrawal.–ellen  [author photo by Dan Sears]


Barack Obama has an impressive intellect, and he has given the decision on Afghanistan policy the careful, prolonged deliberation that it deserved. To this historian of U.S. foreign relations, the speech laying out his decision is, alas, striking not for its deep insight or its crisp logic. Rather, it brings to mind a score of other speeches delivered by presidents over the last sixty years justifying U.S. intervention in the third world.

In its essential format the speech follows the well-established rhetorical template. It begins with a rehearsal of origins — of a commitment made for reasons of national security so sound that the country has no choice but to continue and make it turn out right. It then turns to paint an alarmist picture of a cancerous threat to U.S. security posed by the Taliban and Al Qaeda operating in “an epicenter of violent extremism.” The President concludes with the required rehearsal of values — the ideals of freedom and the obligations of global leadership — that define Americans and that somehow require saving Afghanistan and shoring up Pakistan. Abandoning those objectives would implicitly put in question who we are as a people and our role in the world. Predictably, this nationalist boilerplate and the accompanying bromides about wishing only for a world of peace and prosperity for ourselves and for others drew the most applause from an otherwise subdued audience.

The illusions that inform this speech are as familiar as its form. The President seems to think a client dependent on U.S. troops since its inception will somehow gain vitality by the dispatch of more troops backed by a tough-love assistance program. Reviving the discredited notion of nation building is bad enough, but even worse is the failure to notice the imperial odor given off by this attempt to remake Afghanistan. But what to call a sustained effort backed by military force to shape a nation to our preferences if not an exercise in empire?

At the same time Obama demonstrates a touching faith in the efficacy of U.S. military power to defeat a force noted for its persistence — all before the eighteen-month clock runs down. No less worrisome, Obama seems to labor under the “indispensable power” illusion that makes other major players in the region irrelevant. Only Pakistan appears in the speech and even then as a problem to be solved. Russia, China, India, and Iran get no mention even though their long-term stake in the Afghanistan problem is far greater than ours.

Finally, the speech follows a long tradition of playing fast and loose with historical parallels. We are thankfully free here of references to Munich. But into the gap comes Vietnam and Iraq. The president’s shake-and-bake version of the Vietnam War has no room for the prime feature of current relevance: the failed attempt over twenty years to make our Saigon client stand up. Obama seems more under the sway of the Iraq parallel without realizing the perils of instant history. The notion of a successful surge in Iraq is popular among the army’s counterinsurgency advocates but widely disputed within the foreign policy establishment. Whether Iraq remains calm and what role the surge played won’t become clear for a long time.

Obama’s speech reveals how easily even keen leaders with fresh ideas and urgent new priorities get captured by the policies of the past. The question puzzling to this historian even after decades of policy watching is how and why does this capture occur so that in this case “the way forward” in a “new era” ends up drawing so much from the problematic outlook associated with the past. Is the answer in something simple like the White House drinking water or something broader and more complex like the national political culture?

–Michael H. Hunt
Everett H. Emerson Professor of History Emeritus, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill