Nine classes of West Point cadets have flung their caps into the air since America went to war in Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 attacks. In a commencement address over the weekend, President Obama warned those he was sending into battle that the fight ahead would be "tough" and its end neither quick nor simple.
"Along the way, I'm sure you faced a few moments when you asked yourself: What am I doing here?" he said, referring not only to the four years of drills, training, inspections, tests and sleepless nights the graduates have endured, but perhaps to the protracted war itself in Afghanistan. "I have those moments sometimes," he acknowledged.
So he should. Polls show that a majority of Americans no longer think that the cost and casualties of the Afghan war are worth the struggle. His leftist base and many conservative critics alike want him to withdraw as quickly as possible. Obama seems disinclined to do that, but unable to articulate a clear, persuasive answer to the question more and more Americans are asking: What are we doing there?
President Obama traveled to West Point to continue his effort to explain how the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq fit into his new national security strategy, which will be unveiled soon. In this curtain-raiser at West Point, the president did not mention George Bush by name, but he distanced himself from Bush's unilateralism, as he has done before. Then curiously, he began claiming credit for some of what his predecessor achieved in Iraq, while emphasizing another goal to which he had previously given at least rhetorical short shrift – promoting human rights and democracy.
There was, as New York Times correspondent Peter Baker and The Atlantic's James Fallows were pleased to note, no mention of the dreaded Bushian endorsement of "pre-emptive" or "preventative" wars. But neither, wrote William Inboden, a veteran of the Bush White House who runs the London-based Legatum Institute, did Obama explicitly rule them out either.
Strikingly, there was a definition of success in Iraq for which he claimed pre-emptive credit – an Iraq that does not harbor terrorists, as Saddam did prior to the 2003 invasion, (how quickly the late unlamented terrorist Abu Nidal is forgotten) and an Iraq that is sovereign, stable and self-reliant – still obviously elusive goals which seem to have had little effect on Mr. Obama's Iraq exit timetable.
There was no updated definition of success in Afghanistan.
He repeated his intention to "break the momentum of a Taliban insurgency" and "train Afghan security forces." He praised the election of a "sovereign government," the need to "strengthen its capacities," and finally, ensure that it does not "fall prey to our common enemies." But that Iraq-like definition would obviously commit American forces to a protracted stay in Afghanistan.
Nor is there an assurance of "victory" or "success," and that probably won't come until the summer of 2011, when American forces surged there are scheduled to begin to leave.
There were also four pillars of national security, three of which have been self-evident in the president's pronouncements in his first 16 months in office:
- The need to build strength abroad through renewal at home
- Using diplomacy and economic development to advance American security goals
- Building international cooperation through engagement and international cooperation.
Last, and Obama now suggests, not least, he wants to promote human rights and democracy abroad. Never mind that American democracy promotion was hardly evident in Iran, when tens of thousands of protesters turned out last summer to protest their Islamic republic's fraud-filled election. After the fact, anonymous senior White House officials suggested that Obama had not wanted to endanger those brave protesters by openly embracing them and their cause. It remains unclear whether future American actions and policies will be more consistent with his West Point objectives.