Professors sound off on the speech

President Barack Obama spoke at West Point Tuesday, announcing a troop increase in Afghanistan but also promising to begin bringing American soldiers home by July 2011. Reporter Nora Caplan-Bricker asked Yale professors Stuart Gottlieb, Charles Hill and Steven Smith for their thoughts on the new strategy.

ON THE NEW PLAN’S STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES

Hill: The president has put forward one half of a good strategy and one half of a bad strategy. The plan is a good one in that it provides almost all of the troops that General McChrystal wanted and good in that it requires NATO to provide some troops. The mistake is to allow the new approach to be tagged with the phrase “exit strategy.” That’s a phrase you never want to use. When in any kind of war situation, it’s not a good thing to tell the enemy that you’re not going to be around long. You’re undercutting your own strategy.

Many Americans in the political spectrum have, over the last several years, thought if we set a deadline about when we’re going to leave, that’s going to stimulate those in the region to do more on their own behalf. The record shows that that isn’t true — when we indicate we’re not going to be around long, people in the region turn to our adversaries. The No. 1 question for the average person is the region is, “who is going to be in charge next week, next month, next year?” If they think it’s going to be the Taliban — and that’s what this speech indicated — they will not cooperate with us.

Gottlieb: I think the president did the best he could under the most difficult of circumstances. He recognizes that, in this political climate of many opposed to war, there’s no alternative for him at this point but to promise some near horizon beyond which this commitment will no longer be open-ended. The administration recognizes it’s not ideal to give a date and time [for the exit strategy], but is guided more by the realities of politics and public opinion.

[The president] is trying to appease different constituencies. The Democratic left wing of his party is opposed to any increased involvement. The hawks in the Republican Party and elsewhere want more American involvement. It’s a difficult political situation, and I’m not sure he resolved the problem by committing to both sides. In trying to appease both, he put himself in a very precarious position with very little wiggle room.

ON THE SPEECH

Hill: I don’t think President Obama could have satisfied his various audiences no matter what rhetorical style he used. The one he used was rather flat, and probably that’s the best way to bridge the differences in his audiences. There was nothing of great conviction or inspirational about the speech, but I don’t think if he had tried that would have worked very well.

Smith: I thought it was a very powerful speech. What I found striking about it was the fact that [the president] was speaking at West Point in front of all the cadets. After it was over, when he was having his picture taken, they all rushed him to have pictures taken with him and get autographs. Seeing the young people in the audience, I found it a very powerful backdrop to the speech.

ONE THE FUTURE OF AFGHANISTAN

Hill: [The Afghanis] will do the right thing for themselves and for everybody else in terms of international security if they simply are provided with some security themselves. If we can provide security for a population, the people there will begin to do all the right things: start businesses, grow families. But security comes first. To give that security, we need troops, and to give them a sense there’s staying power behind it, that the security they’re going to get is security they can keep.

[If we leave too soon], the Afghanistan area will not really be a functioning state. It will be in the hands of Islamist radicals.

Gottlieb: It’s realistic to think it could improve [in the next 18 months]. But there are no guarantees this is going to work. It’s difficult to send a message that we’re committed to success but going to be out of there in 18 months; that’s a very difficult circle to square. It was unusual to commit to a specific date [for the exit strategy].

Comments

  • Norman

    Smith calls this a “powerful speech.” I’ve never seen the President so disengaged. He looked like he didn’t want to be there, and by the look on the faces of the cadets, they were not exactly enthralled themselves. Don’t let the photo op at the end of the speech fool you. The Commandant of Cadets had to remind the Corps, prior to the speech, to be respectful and enthusiastic. That’s a clue right there.

  • alum

    What is Hill’s Ph.D. in ?

  • Christopher Bieda ’83

    “alum,” according to his Hoover Institution bio (http://www.hoover.org/bios/hill.html), Professor Hill’s doctoral degree is the juris doctor, not the philosophiæ doctor.

  • Another Alum

    Is Charles Hill considered an authority on anything anymore?

  • Yale ’08

    This is why you never ask academics to weigh in on issues or strategies that ultimately have a strong moral implication; they conveniently blur the truth for the sake of their materialistic argument. What Obama did is simple: win a nobel peace prize and then double the number of combatants in Afghanistan. How many more mothers will lose a child and how many more civilians in Afghanistan will die? Any thoughts on that one oh esteemed professors?

    The longer the US is in Afghanistan the more vicious the insurgency against it will be. This war is an unwinnable one. The president would be well advised to focus on domestic issues and improve America from within.

  • Recent Alum

    #4: Hill is one of the few faculty members in PoliSci/IR who is able to comment on issues with an open mind and without an underlying agenda. Does that preclude him from being seen as an authority in your eyes?