Reading between Obama's lines

By EDITORIAL  |  May 2, 2012


President Barack Obama's address to the nation from Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan may have lasted less than 11 minutes, but it has big implications.

The most obvious was to reassure Main Street Americans that he was committed to honoring his administration's promise to remove combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

This was certainly not the most dramatic or the most debated aspect of his address, but with nearly 70 percent of the nation opposed to a continued presence there, it should not be discounted.

Obama was speaking from a position of strength. In four years, his administration has done more to rip the guts out of Al Qaeda's command structure than his predecessor, George W. Bush, could claim in seven.

The Obama-ordered killing of Osama bin Laden gives the president unchallengeable credibility in these matters.

And while the Phoenix still questions the wisdom of the troop surge that Obama endorsed two years ago, we take perverse pleasure in watching the Republican peanut gallery squirm as it tries to convince the nation that bin Laden's death was devoid of political implications.

Republican leaders have been misrepresenting their foreign policy expertise for so many years now that they have reached a point where they now believe their own lies.

The most worrisome part of Obama's speech was his pledge to maintain some sort of presence in Afghanistan for the next decade.

Even if Obama wins re-election, that provision would be subject to review by future presidents. But for the time being, it quiets critics such as Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham.

It is hard to think of a Muslim country that McCain and Graham are not in favor of invading. But for the time being — and hopefully through the November election — Obama's latest policy should muffle right-wing nutjobs.

At the moment, Obama's most vocal naysayers are in the center and on the left. A New York Times editorial, headlined "Missed Chance," criticized Obama's speech for being "frustratingly weak."

"Vague" would be a better word; and "understandably vague" would be even more appropriate.

What Obama, in effect, said was that the United States would stick to its troop reduction timeline and continue with the task of helping the corrupt, ungrateful, and duplicitous Karzai regime to build a military force. But we're winding down the nation-building game and segueing to a more focused strategy of hunting down the region's remaining terrorists.

War, of course, is never that cut- and-dried.

But between now and the November election, Obama hopes to maximize American leverage in Afghanistan.

It is relatively easy to read between Obama's lines. After 2014, America's role will be calibrated to its rate of success.

As time goes on, Afghanistan is becoming less important as a center of terrorist conspiracy. The dispersal and decentralization of Islamic fanatics may, in the long run, make the job of protecting this nation more difficult.

But it also changes the rules of engagement. Large concentrations of troops will not be the answer. Good intelligence and flexible, mobile firepower will be.

All of this should leave the presumptive Republican presidential challenger, Mitt Romney, scratching his well-coiffed head.

By throwing a big juicy bone to neo-conservative warmongers like McCain, and by reminding the vast majority of middle-of-the-road voters that the US is still getting out, Obama more or less invites Romney to call for massive escalation.

In political terms, Obama's Afghanistan move was well played. But shortly after he finished his address, the Taliban staged an impromptu attack.

In the wake of the car-bomb blast and the ensuing battle with police, 18 Afghans lay dead and almost 40 were wounded.

It was a grim reminder that the bottom line in Afghanistan is about blood, not politics.

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