Obama at West Point: Can He Make the Moral Case?

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Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty

President Obama speaks during a Cabinet meeting at the White House

If the leaks and speculation are anything to go on, President Barack Obama will deliver a number of different messages in his Tuesday-night speech about the war in Afghanistan. He will announce plans to send some 30,000 additional troops to the war zone. He will lay out benchmarks that the government of Hamid Karzai will be expected to meet. He may even sketch a timetable for an eventual U.S. withdrawal. At some point, he will likely describe the conflict in Afghanistan as a war of necessity.

The mere fact that Obama has reached a decision on Afghanistan, coupled with the speech's West Point backdrop and the President's oratorical gifts, will probably boost public support for the war effort in the short run. But it is unlikely to convince most Americans that a war that has already lasted more than eight years is worth fighting indefinitely. Even if Obama sets a target date for leaving Afghanistan, he'll still be asking the public to sign on to a major escalation that will see many more Americans killed and wounded, and will cost hundreds of billions more dollars. Pouring blood and treasure into a distant campaign is a hard sell at the best of times, let alone during the worst recession in a generation.

So what can Obama do?

Until now, the Administration has made its case for a troop increase by focusing on narrow national-security aims: deterring another terrorist attack against the U.S., denying al-Qaeda a safe haven and preventing further destabilization in Pakistan. That approach reflects the realist bent of much of the Obama team, which believes that foreign policy should be guided more by interests than by ideals. There are two problems, however, with trying to sell a troop surge solely on national-security grounds. The first is that it is almost impossible to prove that sending more troops to Afghanistan will make Americans safer; after all, al-Qaeda's leadership is in Pakistan, not Afghanistan, and recent history shows that terrorists can plot and strike in Moscow and Madrid and Mumbai regardless of whether or not they have a safe haven in Afghanistan. The second problem with the national-security argument is that it is rhetorically defensive — it defines the U.S. mission in Afghanistan in terms of what American troops are fighting against, but provides little sense of what the country is fighting for.

To a realist like Obama, that may not seem like a particularly grievous omission. Since taking office, Obama has consciously avoided the sweeping, Wilsonian rhetoric that became the hallmark of George W. Bush's foreign policy after Sept. 11. Unlike Bush, Obama almost never talks about the goals of securing freedom for Afghans or building democratic institutions or liberating women. When it comes to Afghanistan, the liberal President has abandoned the language of liberalism.

Downplaying the moral component of the American project in Afghanistan may be smart if Obama's goal is to show he's not Bush. But it won't ultimately help win more support for his strategy — and it will ensure that his speech scores with pundits but not with the American people. The most memorable and effective wartime presidential speeches have blended hardheaded statements of resolve with appeals to higher purpose. At Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln vowed that the Union would complete "the great task remaining before us" yet made it clear that the goal was not just to defeat the Confederacy but to ensure "that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom." During World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt tacitly agreed to postwar Soviet dominion over Eastern Europe in part to secure Moscow's support for an invasion of Japan. But to the public, FDR couched the war against the Axis as nothing less than a fight to "build a world founded upon four essential freedoms." In the face of fascism and tyranny, Roosevelt said, America would fight to promote a "moral order."

The war in Afghanistan is not nearly as vital to America's global interests as World War II was — and the Taliban's tyranny pales in comparison to that of the Third Reich. But while it's too simplistic to focus solely on the moral imperatives of the Afghan campaign, it would be just as shortsighted for Obama to ignore them altogether. History shows that Americans are far more willing to support a war that they believe is worthy of their ideals. If Obama hopes to rally the American people behind his strategy, his speech needs to convince them that the war in Afghanistan meets that test.