Yes We Can

It is easy to forget how new a face President Barack Obama is. Obama first came to national public notice we he delivered a rousing keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention that nominated Senator John Kerry for President. Kerry lost to President Bush, but Obama won his election as US Senator. Almost immediately afters he started running for president. Running for president was perhaps his most notable qualification for president. During one election cycle, Obama was an unknown Illinois State Senator and a little more than four years later, he is President of the United States.

There has never been even the smallest doubt about Obama’s rhetorical skills and charisma. Despite the fact, that he started out as a long shot to the obvious next Democratic nominee Senator Hillary Clinton, he never wavered in his personal confidence. He was manifestly capable of emotionally motivating young campaign workers and other supporters with the buoyant chants of “Yes We Can… Yes We Can…”

Obama never betrayed any doubts about his ultimate victory. He never publicly hedged in his personal conviction. Whether he harbored an personal doubts, he certainly knew that it would deflate supporters if he expressed an hesitancy. Obama never said that he would be committed to running to a particular point in the primaries and then he would reassess. Obama instinctively knew that confidence breeds more confidence and increases the likelihood of ultimate victory. Why then is Obama so tentative in his ambitions in Afghanistan?

Given the fact that Al Qaeda under the protection of the Taliban in Afghanistan planned and executed the September 11, 2001 attacks, it appears foolish to allow the Taliban to return to their previous status. When running for president, Obama called the War in Afghanistan the “necessary war.” Was this a conviction, or simply a rhetorical club with which to bludgeon the Bush Administration for its decision to fight in Iraq? In any case, one does not win either an optional or a “necessary” war with tentativeness an equivocation.

This last week, Obama gave a professorial speech to the cadets at West Point matter-of-factly explaining that it was important to keep the Taliban from returning to power. He would increase troops levels almost to the point originally requested by his hand-picked General Stanley McChrystal,  for 18 months and then would reassess. He would perhaps begin to bring troops home at that time. There was no talk of victory, no talk of overwhelming force, no mention of the previous success of a similar strategy in Iraq, no emotional rallying of the troops to face those who threaten the United States.

In this West Point speech, Obama could not marshal the same enthusiasm to encourage the troops as he did for his campaign workers in the 2008 election. The most charitable interpretation is that as gifted a speaker as Obama is, he has not yet fully embraced his leadership role as Commander-in-Chief. He displays none of the trademark Obama confidence about sending young men and women off to war. There is a more cynical interpretation: He would settle for nothing less than victory in his presidential run, while in the case of Afghanistan he would just like disengage as soon as possible.

For now, Obama has made the correct decision with regard to Afghanistan, though he has perhaps followed the former Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld strategy of being a bit too parsimonious with troop numbers. His tentative speech delivered in far too measured tones undermined the chances for victory there. You ought not send off troops halfheartedly to war. Why has Obama not embraced the General  Colin Powell Doctrine of once committing to conflict, use overwhelming force?

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