President Obama’s dramatic speech from Afghanistan should be parsed as a careful election-year orchestration of his plan to “wind down” the war. It is no accident that the speech came during the first-year commemoration of the killing of Osama bin Laden, the event providing Obama the rationale for ending American combat while placing hawks and political rivals on the defensive.
For reasons historians will have to explore, George Bush dropped the pursuit of bin Laden, providing Obama with a chance that few top Democrats are given: to prove himself “tougher” on terrorism than his critics. Obama took the risk. The question now is whether the rewards he reaps will be for real peace or a disastrous quagmire.
Between now and November, the narrative of killing the Al Qaeda leader will be politicized and repeated in the mainstream media and Obama campaign films and speeches that many will find inappropriate. Obama himself may have kept his pride in check last year when he said “we don’t need to spike the football” and “we don’t trot out this stuff as trophies” (speaking of photos of bin Laden’s body). Then Obama’s top aide David Axelrod seemed to test the boastful political line, “Ask Osama bin Laden,” when answering a question about Obama’s toughness. Since then, the bin Laden assassination is increasingly about spiking the football, leading CNN’s Jack Cafferty to accuse Obama of being “hypocrite-in-chief” and allowing the Republicans to grab the opportunity to change the subject.
Obama spoke to multiple and conflicting audiences from Afghanistan. Primarily, of course, his speech was to America’s voters and families, especially those upset by the suffering of their loved ones or the dark suspicion that the war has been for naught. But Obama also intended to frame the Chicago summit for NATO members and the world media, and include a peace incentive for the Taliban and Pakistan, while still assuring the Afghan allies and the military that he’s committed to the long run. These contradictions are impossible to smooth over. But there were signals worth heeding.
For the first time, Obama acknowledged and embraced the “direct discussions” going on with the Taliban towards a “negotiated peace.” That statement may seem mild enough to peace activists who remember the long years of talks that dragged on during Vietnam. For a commander-in-chief, however, talking with the perpetrators (or avid abettors) of the 9/11 attacks is potentially volatile in the extreme. Obama needs to defuse any potential backlash from the talks going bad.
Obama’s stated conditions for talking with the Taliban were (1) their breaking with Al Qaeda, which means a credible agreement to prevent safe havens in Afghanistan, a condition the Taliban can accept; (2) that they abide by Afghan “laws,” as distinct from the more rigid Afghan constitution; and (3) a protection of Afghanistan’s sovereignty, which is different from the country’s present form of governance, is closed to the Taliban. None of these starting points are insuperable obstructions to progress, not even Obama’s more general call for human rights for “men and women.” Agreeing to repudiate “violence” is far easier than surrendering weapons, as the Northern Ireland experience proved.