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Examining Obama's Afghan Speech


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


The unofficial roll out of President Obama's new Afghan strategy has quietly begun. Over the weekend, the president privately outlined his plan to top military and civilian advisers. He reportedly spoke with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by phone on Sunday, then held an Oval Office meeting last night.

NORRIS: A White House spokesman said the president has also shared his decision with General Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan and that he has begun reaching out to foreign leaders. Tomorrow, President Obama shares his plan with the public in a speech at West Point. He will face a skeptical audience: American support for the war is in decline. And on Capitol Hill, lawmakers are worried about the price tag and the commitment from foreign allies.

BLOCK: Michael Gerson was the chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush from 2000 to 2006. But first, we speak to Ambassador Wendy Sherman. She was the special adviser to President Clinton as well as his policy coordinator for North Korea. Ambassador Sherman, welcome to the program.

WENDY SHERMAN: Thank you for having me.

NORRIS: Now, the president is expected to announce a troop increase, reportedly around 35,000 additional troops. And he is expected to explain the strategy going ahead in Afghanistan and to spell out an exit strategy. What are the most important things he needs to say and to do in this address?

SHERMAN: I think most fundamental, the president needs to explain to the American people why putting these resources in Afghanistan and having a strategy for Afghanistan is worth American blood and treasure. He has to outline the mission, how we will leave, when we might leave, even if he is not specific, and how he is going to deal with the cost because we are in a very challenged economic environment that is first and foremost on the minds of Americans.

NORRIS: So, you're talking about details. He needs to give specific details.

SHERMAN: He needs to give specific details, but I think on that score, he will probably leave people wondering a little bit because he can't give so much detail that he gives away all the details of the strategy to the enemy. And one speech, Michele, is not enough. There has to be a very comprehensive roll-out strategy, both in the United States and abroad, that includes not only the president speaking many more times in many situations, but we know that later this week, we are going to have members of his administration testifying on Capitol Hill, that will be very important. I'm sure, they'll be speaking with editorial boards, getting validaters(ph) out there, op-eds in local and regional papers. And as we know, Secretary Clinton is going to be going to NATO later this week because we also have to deliver this message abroad as well.

NORRIS: The White House might bristle at this comparison, but are there parallels here to Lyndon Johnson and his presidency when he announced his first major escalation of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam?

SHERMAN: Well, the administration certainly hopes that that comparison will not be made. For those of us who grew up during the Vietnam generation, it of course comes to mind. But this is a very different situation, where we're talking about dismantling al-Qaida internationally, talking about doing this not just alone, but with the international community. Prime Minister Gordon Brown has called an international conference January 28th because this can't be an American responsibility alone. There are 36,000 troops from NATO and other countries. That has to continue. And Prime Minister Brown has announced - and I think is announcing today to his parliament - a troop increase of 500, which doesn't sound like a lot to compare to the American commitment, but at least is a step forward. So, this really is going to be internationalized as much as the president possibly can. And he meets today with Prime Minister Rudd from Australia, who has already announced an increase in Australian troops.

NORRIS: Is it important that his voice be followed very quickly by some of the military commanders, General McChrystal for instance, to step forward and say I'm behind him, I support this decision?

SHERMAN: Absolutely. I think that you want to hear the generals support him, behind him, that's why he issued the orders last evening to the generals. We know that McChrystal is scheduled, I believe, very soon to testify on Capitol Hill, as is Secretary Clinton and Secretary Gates. I think that you'll see probably a lot of generals on shows like ALL THINGS CONSIDERED and on the TV talk shows validating what the president has done.

NORRIS: Ambassador Sherman, thank you very much.

SHERMAN: Thank you.

NORRIS: Wendy Sherman was a special adviser to President Clinton as well as his policy coordinator for North Korea. Now, to Michael Gerson, chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush from 2000 to 2006. Mr. Gerson, welcome to the program.

MICHAEL GERSON: Good to be with you.

NORRIS: How does the president send a bit of a mixed message tomorrow night, first to our allies, including Pakistan, that we're in this for the long haul, but also to the American people, many who would like us to get out tomorrow?

GERSON: Well, as a former speechwriter, he - I think you describe this as an audience problem. He has an audience in the congressional leadership, the leadership of his own party that wants to know when we're going to leave. He has an audience in the American people, who are confused and tired. He has an audience in some of our allies that need to know we're not going to cut and run. He also has an audience of tens of thousands of people in the military and their families, who need to know that they are sacrificing for a cause that's really worth it, that the president is deeply and passionately committed to. So, it's a tough balance, but I think the president, in a lot of ways, is going to have to emerge for the first time in his presidency as a war-time leader.

NORRIS: What does that mean?

GERSON: Well, it's a tremendous rhetorical challenge. You know, we've had a process that led to the Afghan decision that created a lot of uncertainty. This was a, you know, there were arguments within the administration, between civilian and military, between our ambassador in Afghanistan and our main general in Afghanistan. There's a lot of division, a lot of uncertainty, a lot of leaks in this process that I think have, you know, created questions. And it adds an additional burden for him now to be able to say, you know, the process might have been messy and it's not an easy decision. But I have come down firmly, completely on one side of this issue, that we now have a goal, we now have a strategy that's going to work that results in victory. We now have a goal that's achievable and I am personally and passionately committed to achieving it.

NORRIS: And does he have to spell out what exactly victory means? Because if you ask 10 people, you are probably going to get nine different answers on that.

GERSON: You know, I think he has to provide some indication that there is an endgame here. I think it would be a mistake by the way for him to set timetables that were too firm because that's a signal to the enemy that you can just wait us out. And, you know, in a country like Afghanistan that's a real problem and temptation. The Taliban is a durable fighting force. But I think he has to describe the elements of an effective counterinsurgency strategy, which is, you know, the way that we achieve victory is by providing security for the Afghan people, okay. So, they join the fight themselves and we aid them in training and increasing their capability, so they can take more and more of these burdens. And by the way, there is a media precedent here because General Petraeus and General McChrystal pursued a similar strategy in Iraq. It's not exactly the same circumstance, but there are parallels. And we are now in a position, because of that commitment, because of that surge in troops in Iraq, that America can realistically pull back its forces because the security environment is better.

NORRIS: Michael Gerson, thank you very for coming in to talk to us.

GERSON: Sure. Good to be with you.

NORRIS: Michael Gerson was the chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush from 2000 to 2006. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.