Things to Watch For in Obama's Speech

By Eamon Javers
|  Tuesday, Dec 1, 2009  |  Updated 2:57 PM PDT
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Things to Watch For in Obama's Speech

The White House

President Barack Obama waits for his introduction during the Democratic National Committee dinner at the Westin St. Francis Hotel, in San Francisco, Calif., Oct. 15.

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Barack Obama will make one of the most consequential – and controversial — speeches of his presidency Tuesday night when he announces he’ll send 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan over the next six months. The White House calls it an “accelerated” push to beat back gains by the Taliban and root out al-Qaida.

But with liberals in his party outraged, and most of the country opposed to extending the eight-year-long conflict, Obama will have to use the roughly 40-minute address to try convince the nation he’s on the right course. Here are the key points to watch for at 8 p.m. when Obama steps to the podium at West Point:

How does he pay for it?

The Pentagon’s rough estimate for the cost of more troops in Afghanistan is that every 1,000 troops costs an additional $1 billion a year, so the bill for Obama’s escalation equals $30 billion a year.

So tonight, watch the president’s language carefully to see if he offers up a solution to pay for the troop increase he’s proposing – and what that solution is, especially at a time when the federal budget deficit is already $1.4 trillion and Obama has pledged to begin attacking it next year.

One of the trickiest critics to emerge in recent months of the president’s proposal for more troops is Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.) the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee – and the man who controls the purse strings to finance any new troop surge. Obey has said that he’s worried that paying for the cost of the war will drown out other domestic spending initiatives, and he’s calling for a new “war surtax” to finance the Afghanistan effort.

“Ain’t going to be no money for nothing if we pour it all into Afghanistan,” Obey said on CNN.

That presents a quandary for Obama, who campaigned against the Bush administration’s tendency to finance the Iraq war with emergency supplemental spending bills. One former Bush White House aide questioned whether Obama would have to break his promise not to pay for war costs through off-budget supplement spending. “Wars are, in fact, hard to predict. Battlefield needs don't always neatly line up with the annual appropriations process,” this ex-official said.

So far, the White House isn’t saying. Thomas Donnelly, a resident fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, says bringing up the financial costs in the speech itself would be a mistake. “We will not go bankrupt because of the war,” Donnelly said. “If he raises it, people will wonder that the political subtext is.”

How does he order a surge… without using the word “surge?”

In every way he can, Obama has sought to be the un-George Bush. But his speech tonight will be the most Bushian thing he has done to date. In early 2007, Bush issued an order to send more than 20,000 additional troops to Iraq – a then controversial decision that was later credited with helping bring some measure of stability to the war-torn country. Obama’s troop increase will be similar, but larger, 30,000 troops.

 

But the idea of Obama’s increase is strikingly similar to Bush’s – beat back extremists from threatening the government and the local population, help the central government take firmer control and train the local police and military. Remember Bush’s frequent calls to stand up the Iraqi forces so the United States can stand down? Obama’s trying to do the same thing in Afghanistan.

Both presidents also felt a need to push back against critics who said they were taking too long in making up their minds about what to do. In December of 2006, Bush said, “I will be delivering my plans after a long deliberation, after steady deliberation. I'm not going to be rushed into making a decision.” Obama echoed those words almost exactly in October, telling troops at the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Fla.: “I will never rush the solemn decision of sending you into harm’s way.” In the end,

But even though the situations are similar, look to see whether Obama actually uses the word “surge”– or avoids a term that is so closely linked to his unpopular predecessor.

“I don’t think he’ll say it,” said Walter Andersen, the acting director of the South Asia program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “’Surge’ has too many memories, it will arouse his own base and give an impression that he’s giving in to the military.”

How does he sell it to his liberal base?

During the Democratic primaries, Barack Obama relentlessly pushed his opposition to the Iraq war as the key difference between himself and his rival, Hillary Clinton. That attracted legions of anti-war voters to his camp, and helped him wrest the presidential nomination away from the presumptive front runner.

Now, though, Obama will be arguing for more troops in Afghanistan at a time when many Americans have grown frustrated with the lack of progress there after eight years of combat. And although Obama always campaigned on the idea that Afghanistan was the most necessary of the nation’s two wars, his liberal base may very well chafe at the idea that the president they helped elect is sending more troops into harm’s way.

In an open letter to the president posted on his website, liberal filmmaker Michael Moore implored the president not to announce a new troop escalation but to begin a withdrawal from Afghanistan. Sending more troops, he said, would “turn a multitude of young people who were the backbone of your campaign into disillusioned cynics. You will teach them what they've always heard is true — that all politicians are alike,” Moore wrote.

At West Point, Obama will likely tip his hat to those concerns, but the White House is signaling that he’ll refer back to the 9/11 attacks, the plotter’s links to Afghanistan and the dangers of allowing extremists to have free rein in Afghanistan again. The memory of that day is fading for many Americans, but Obama will have to try to remind voters why the United States invaded Afghanistan in the first place.

How does he finesse the corruption allegations surrounding Afghan leader Hamid Karzai?

Before he withdrew from the contested Afghan presidential election, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah pronounced that his rival, Hamid Karzai, was crippled by the corruption surrounding his regime. “That government cannot bring legitimacy, cannot fight corruption,” Abdullah said, adding that it “cannot deal with all the challenges, especially the threat of terrorism, security problems, poverty, unemployment and many others.”

Karzai’s increasing alienation is a problem for Obama, though, especially because Americans like to be on the side of the good guys. The more widespread allegations become of Karzai’s corrupt rule and rigging the election, the more difficult it becomes for the president to convince voters that American troops are fighting and dying to, in effect, protect his government and set the stage for a U.S. handoff to Karzai in coming years.

“For the moment, we don’t have a reliable partner,” GOP Sen. Richard Lugar said of the Afghan government on CNN Sunday.

 

Look for Obama then to narrowly tailor the mission of the US military tonight toward disrupting and degrading Al Qaeda – and look for any mentions of the Karzai regime to come loaded with caveats and tough new requirements that Karzai’s government has to step up, or the United States will step out. Obama also has to finesse what he’s asking from the Pakistani government – a nuclear power that’s looking increasingly shaky – partly to avoid stirring up anti-U.S. sentiment among Pakistanis and partly because so much of the U.S. action in Pakistan is covert CIA operations and Predator drone attacks.

What’s the timeline?

The White House pushed back on Tuesday afternoon against news reports that Obama would announce a three year timeline to bring the Afghan war to an end. But that leaves the obvious question – what timeline will he chose? Or will he go without a timeline at all?

It does appear that Obama is planning to begin drawing down U.S. forces before the end of his first term in January 2013, but it’s not clear he’ll be that explicit in the speech.

Under fierce criticism from Republicans, Obama fulfilled a campaign promise by announcing a date of August 2010 for US withdrawal from Iraq. But that, Obama said, was a war of choice – if you chose to start a war, you can more easily choose when to end it.

But Obama has said the Al Qaeda fighting mission in Afghanistan is more central to U.S. national interests, and that makes it hard to set a date to pull out. Expect Republicans – who are largely supportive of Obama’s troops increases in Afghanistan – to come down hard if he edges toward a date certain for getting out, because they’ll say he’s merely giving the extremists a sense of how long they have to wait out the United States.

“I doubt that there will be any specific timeframe given,” said former US ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker. “Rather, there would be a statement that the purpose of the troop increase is to gain time to create more stability and train Afghan security forces to take over security responsibility; as that work proceeds, we can reduce our own troop presence, leaving behind a stable, sustainable situation in Afghanistan that does not depend solely upon foreign forces.”

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