By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON – There was no banner, no naval cheering section, no aircraft-carrier landing and – thank heavens – no flight suit. But make no mistake: President Obama gave his own version of a “mission accomplished” speech Wednesday.
The policy itself was no triumph, just a split-the-difference compromise between the slower troop withdrawal from Afghanistan sought by the generals and the faster one many congressional Democrats and a majority of the public desired. But Obama packaged it nicely, wrapped it with a bow and declared, perhaps prematurely, that his “surge” in Afghanistan had been a success.
“We’re starting this drawdown from a position of strength,” the president proclaimed in his prime-time address. “Al-Qaeda is under more pressure than at any time since 9/11. Together with the Pakistanis, we have taken out more than half of al-Qaeda’s leadership. And thanks to our intelligence professionals and Special Forces, we killed Osama bin Laden, the only leader that al-Qaeda had ever known. This was a victory for all who have served since 9/11.”
“Drawdown from a position of strength” sounds eerily like the “return on success” phrase that George W. Bush used about Iraq – and the similarities did not end there. “We take comfort in knowing that the tide of war is receding,” Obama said. “We’ve ended our combat mission in Iraq, with 100,000 American troops already out of that country. And even as there will be dark days ahead in Afghanistan, the light of a secure peace can be seen in the distance.”
To be sure, the president was characteristically muted in his celebration, warning of “huge challenges” ahead. His staff was rather less restrained; speaking under the cloak of anonymity, his aides held a teleconference Wednesday afternoon with audible chest thumping. “We haven’t seen a terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan for the past seven or eight years,” one boasted, finding “no indication that there is any effort within Afghanistan to use Afghanistan as a launching pad to carry out attacks. … The threat has come from Pakistan over the past half-dozen years or so, and longer.”
So if there hasn’t been a terrorist threat coming from Afghanistan for seven or eight years, why did Obama send tens of thousands of additional troops into a conflict that has claimed more than 1,500 American lives? And why is he leaving most of them there?
Obama surely hopes that his declare-victory-and-retreat-slowly plan will get us somewhere between a catastrophic collapse of order in Afghanistan and an unending American commitment. But the happy talk comes with a risk: By saying things are going so well, Obama could wind up looking premature, as Bush did, if things later go poorly.
That’s more than a theoretical possibility. As an investigation by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee found, Afghanistan has squandered the breathing space given it by the surge, making only modest progress toward competent governance. All but 3 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP is foreign military spending.
But Obama is sorely in need of a victory, and proclaiming one in Afghanistan is as good a choice as any. Sixteen months before the election, it seems his leadership is in trouble everywhere he looks. Liberal Democrats and many Republicans are uniting in opposition to his military action in Libya. The Federal Reserve on Wednesday steeply reduced its growth forecasts for both 2011 and 2012. Even Al Gore is complaining, about Obama’s work on global warming. A Bloomberg poll this week found that only 30 percent of Americans said they would certainly vote for Obama, compared with 36 percent who definitely wouldn’t.
Against that miserable backdrop, Obama’s handling of terrorism is his strongest area of performance – 69 percent in the Bloomberg poll. The president reminded Americans why they hold this view, recalling his vanquishing of bin Laden. “The information that we recovered from bin Laden’s compound shows al-Qaeda under enormous strain,” he said. “Bin Laden expressed concern that al-Qaeda had been unable to effectively replace senior terrorists that have been killed. … We have put al-Qaeda on a path to defeat, and we will not relent until the job is done.”
That, again, echoed Bush. But by the end of the speech, Obama was aiming rather higher. “With confidence in our cause, with faith in our fellow citizens and with hope in our hearts, let us go about the work of extending the promise of America – for this generation, and the next.”
When you echo the closing lines of Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, you don’t need a “mission accomplished” banner.
Dana Milbank’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. He writes for The Washington Post Writers Group.