Barack Obama's Churchill moment
Leaders and war. This, really, is what history finally comes down to, is it not?
Leaders and war. This, really, is what history finally comes down to, is it not? Winston Churchill's statue was not put up in front of the Houses of Parliament to commemorate his tenure as chancellor of the exchequer, or his rather forgettable second go at No 10.
In the United States, the reputations of presidents who serve during wartime hang largely on how successfully they waged it. For better or worse, it's the first thing we look at.
In his speech to the American people, Barack Obama made his bid to become a president who will be remembered for the way he handled a war that was not originally his. The troop increase of 30,000, which will take the total number of US soldiers over 100,000 for the first time, is surely the most fateful decision of his presidency thus far, and its success or failure will go a long way toward determining his place in history.
Some might dispute that. This is not the second world war. In fact, most Americans – not by a lot, but a majority – think this war is no longer worth the bother. It is remote from their lives. Less than 1,000 Americans have died. We're not exactly rationing butter, and if we are hoarding supplies or going without, that's because of the other crisis, the economic one, that George W Bush handed to Obama in January.
And yet, Afghanistan is more important than Americans think. The Taliban and al-Qaida can't be allowed to establish a strong foothold there again. "I am convinced," Obama said, "that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the epicentre of the violent extremism practised by al-Qaida. It is from here that we were attacked on 9/11, and it is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak. This is no idle danger; no hypothetical threat."
Some experts in the intelligence and military fields say al-Qaida doesn't need Afghanistan. If they really want to attack us again, they can do so from Waziristan, or even Hamburg, where several of the 9/11 hijackers lived for a time. Maybe they're right. But it's hard to imagine any responsible president of the United States would be comfortable taking that chance, for both substantive reasons (the horror of an attack itself) and political ones (they'd be impeached).
In addition, success there – defined as the establishment of a vaguely stable and pluralistic society – could help the west's long-term argument against Islamic extremism. Afghanistan, land-locked and rugged, will never be a rich country. But if it can prosper even a bit – Obama used the phrase "civilian surge" to describe civil-society efforts the US will undertake there – more people in the region might be persuaded that an open society is not its enemy.
These are important goals. The political establishment of the US is quite focused on them. The American people, however, are not. And so Obama, trying to placate both, has a very narrow needle to thread: he must show seriousness of commitment, but he must also show that commitment isn't forever.
That's why he placed emphasis on the speed with which the new troops would be deployed, the need for a greater Nato commitment and – most of all – the timetable for stopping the whole business. "These additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces, and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011. Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground," he said, before concluding: "But it will be clear to the Afghan government – and, more importantly, to the Afghan people – that they will ultimately be responsible for their own country."
It's not exactly "blood, toil, tears and sweat" against a "monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime". But the words matter less now than the actions. America, the president said, is "passing through a time of great trial". And so is he.
Barack Obama's Afghanistan plan draws mixed reaction
Republicans welcome troop deployment as US president's allies raise doubts over goals and cost of war
Barack Obama's Afghanistan plan was met with a mix of scorn and praise by his rightwing critics, and doubts among many of his allies over the goals and cost of the enterprise.
Dick Cheney, the hawkish former vice president, accused Obama of "weakness" over Afghanistan for what he said was signalling an intent to get out of the war rather than to win.
But other prominent Republicans backed the president over the troop surge, including Karl Rove, George Bush's political strategist, who said he would be "among the first to applaud" Obama's decision. Dan Senor, a former Bush administration official and adviser to the occupation authority in Iraq, told a Republican party leadership meeting that the additional deployment was "terrific".
Responding to the announcement from Britain this morning, prime minister Gordon Brown called on "all our allies to unite behind President Obama's strategy."
"Britain will continue to play its full part in persuading other countries to offer troops to the Afghanistan campaign," he said.
However, Obama's own Democratic party presented more difficult political terrain with concern among some of his closest allies at the impact an increasingly unpopular and expensive war will have in next year's midterm elections.
There was disappointment from liberal activists too. The filmmaker Michael Moore called Obama "the new war president" for announcing the troop increase and accused him of "destroying the hopes and dreams so many millions have placed in you".
Cheney told the Politico website that the average Afghan "sees talk about exit strategies and how soon we can get out, instead of talk about how we win" as weakness.
He warned that the president "agonising" over strategy and setting dates for withdrawal will cause ordinary Afghans to suspect the US is unreliable and cause them to side with the Taliban.
"They're worried the United States isn't going to be there much longer and the bad guys are," he said.
Senator John McCain and other Republicans have joined Cheney in warning that setting any timetable for withdrawal – or, as Obama has done, a date to begin withdrawal – would undermine the mission.
The Democratic party majority leader in Congress, Steny Hoyer, hit back saying that whatever problems exist in US policy in Afghanistan were inherited from the Bush administration.
But with Obama's announcement, that argument will hold less sway. There is a strong body of opinion that says the troop increase means Obama now "owns" the war in Afghanistan and he can no longer blame the previous administration for any failings in its conduct.
Democratic party politicians, such as John Kerry, the former presidential candidate and now Senate foreign relations committee chairman, were clearly conscious of that as they raised questions over what would define victory and worried about public support.
Obama's vice president, Joe Biden, advised him against the troop increase, saying instead that the administration should concentrate on pursuing al-Qaida in Pakistan.
The speaker of the House of Representatives and close Obama ally, Nancy Pelosi, has expressed fears about the cost of the war at a time of sharply rising unemployment and spreading financial hardship.
Among the doubters is Jan Schakowsky, a member of Congress and one of Obama's earliest and most vigorous supporters from Illinois, the state the president also represented. Schakowsly said she had serious doubts about expanding American forces in Afghanistan.
"I have to say I'm very sceptical about that as a solution," she said.
Schakowsky, who helped found a group of Congressional representatives known as the Out of Iraq Caucus, says she fears Afghanistan will be the next "quagmire".
"I really do think that the critical piece that people are going to be listening for is, 'When are we going to be done with this war in Afghanistan?'" she said.
Another Democratic politician, Senator Paul Kirk, wrote in the Boston Globe that he opposed an increase in American forces in Afghanistan because the government in Kabul did not have legitimacy with its own people.
"Without a legitimate and credible Afghan partner, that counterinsurgency strategy is fundamentally flawed. The current Afghan government is neither legitimate nor credible," he said.
Democratic party doubts reflect increasing public scepticism with a CBS News poll showing a 20 point fall in support for the president's handling of the war since the beginning of the year to just 38%. Only 23% of those polled said they believed the war was going well.
Only one in six Democratic voters supports the troop increase.
However, some former military officials believe Obama will win support overseas.
The president is looking to other Nato countries to provide thousands of additional troops.
General George Joulwan, the former Nato supreme allied commander in Europe in the 1990s, said he expected other countries to respond to the administration's appeal. "I truly believe, if approached right, you're going to see several Nato nations, more than just great Britain, join us," he said. "What has been missing here is a decision. There is now a decision. And once the president makes a decision, in my experience, the military turns too. They will generate this force and get it there as quickly as they can to meet the mission on the ground and I hope our Nato allies act with equal decisiveness to get there because it's extremely important because this cannot drag on forever."