George W. Bush has been much in the news of late, thanks to the release of his presidential memoir, but observers might have been forgiven for thinking that the former commander-in-chief also turned up in Afghanistan yesterday.
In fact, it was President Obama, sporting a Bush-style bomber jacket, who made the surprise visit to rally troops in the war-torn country. But as he exhorted them to go on the offensive against the Taliban and vowed that Afghanistan cannot become “a safe haven for terrorists to attack the United States,” Obama sounded like no one so much as his predecessor.
Stirring wartime oratory has never been President Obama’s forte. Partly that is because the president himself has often seemed ambiguous about America’s military mission in Afghanistan, famously eschewing definitive terms like “victory” to describe America’s end goal in the conflict. But whether it reflects a reaffirmed commitment to America’s military campaign or merely a rhetorical change of course inspired by his party’s shellacking in the midterm elections, Obama’s call for a resounding defeat of the Taliban comes at a crucial time.
Domestic support for the war has been falling rapidly. Polls show that a majority of Americans now question the U.S. military involvement, with many wondering whether the war is a lost cause. It does not boost public confidence that with 450 troops killed this year, 2010 has proved the bloodiest year to date for American forces in Afghanistan. And while the media dwells less on casualties now that the country has a Democratic president, it’s evident that public patience with the war is wearing thin.
Americans would not have been reassured by the series of diplomatic cables made public this week by WikiLeaks. To be sure, it is not news that the Afghan government is deeply mired in corruption, with the regime of Hamid Karzai implicated in much of the graft and dark dealing. American officials have frequently made the point through public channels. Still, revelations that, according to one leaked cable, U.S. embassy officials considered only one of Afghanistan’s new cabinet ministers to be free from suspicions of bribery are only going to fortify public doubts about what the U.S. can realistically achieve in the country.
President Obama’s remarks this week will not have dispelled those doubts. Nonetheless, they send the vital message that the commander-in-chief of the armed forces believes in their mission and is determined to see them achieve it. There was nothing even remotely uncertain in the president’s insistence that U.S.-led forces were “going to break the Taliban’s momentum” and that they would no longer be playing “defense.”
That is precisely the kind of resolute message that American troops, and the public back home, need to hear. And if there was in Obama’s message a certain rhetorical symmetry with the speeches of another recent wartime president, those who believe that victory is still possible in Afghanistan will not hold it against him.