Alex Massie

Obama’s War: Same as the Old War

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President Barack Obama speaks in Eisenhower Hall at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Photo: Roger L. Wollenberg-Pool/Getty Images

The text of President Obama's West Point address is here. I didn't watch the speech, but having read it I think it can be summarised, broadly, as "More of the Same, Only More So". It's an intensification, I think, of the existing strategy rather than a radical new approach to a series of interlocking, intractable problems.

Increasingly the Afghan campaign reminds me of that old Irish joke: "Can you tell me the way to Limerick?" "Well, you wouldn't want to start from here." But here is where we are. And that means, I think, that avoiding defeat is a more urgent priority than defining, let alone achieving, "victory".

And while much of this speech was broadly similar to and consistent with what the President has said before, large chunks of it could have been delivered by his predecessor. To wit:

Let me be clear: none of this will be easy. The struggle against violent extremism will not be finished quickly, and it extends well beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan.

So as a result, America will have to show our strength in the way that we end wars and prevent conflict. We will have to be nimble and precise in our use of military power. Where al Qaeda and its allies attempt to establish a foothold - whether in Somalia or Yemen or elsewhere - they must be confronted by growing pressure and strong partnerships.

This, like much else in this speech, is not the sort of thing the left-wing of the Democratic party wants to hear. Hence the nod to finding new ways to pay for the war and the reminder that "the nation that I am most interested in building is our own".

But while the President stresses that he's not interested in making an "open-ended commitment" to Afghanistan he came very close to promising just that. Yes, there's a pledge to begin bringing troops home in the summer of 2011 (conveniently timed to forestall a left-wing primary challenge) but this, while it wins headlines today, is a promise that depends upon "conditions on the ground". There's plenty of wriggle room there. As there needs to be since it's hard to see how the additional 30,000 US troops can achieve the gals set out by the President in just 12 months.

There may not be 100,000 US troops in Afghanistan by the time Obama faces re-election, but I'll bet there remain significant US forces in Afghanistan when his successor takes the Oath of Office, whether that's in January 2013 or 2017.

So, a good but not great speech but perhaps also a necessary and even brave one. Speeches alone rarely change much, but there's no doubt that this is Obama's War now, nor that it will end anytime soon.

For more, see Mike Crowley, Dan Drezner, Reihan Salam, Matt Yglesias, Steve Benen and Spencer Ackerman, all of whom have good things to say.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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