Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Tale of Two Speeches

President Obama gave two important foreign policy speeches recently, and the opinion pages and blogosphere can't seem to stop talking about them. I didn't want to have my voice be lost in the immediate aftermath, but now that much of the dust has settled I thought I'd add a few thoughts.
The President's long-awaited speech rolling out his new Afghanistan strategy pleased almost no one who chose to examine it closely. It took too long, it wasn't detailed enough, it was too specific, some of the details were wrong, he didn't focus on Pakistan enough, he focused too much on Pakistan... Jon Stewart made fun of it for being too much like a speech President Bush could have given. Some bloggers complained that he had conflated the Afghanistan and Pakistani Taliban, and that anyone who doesn't understand the difference couldn't possibly come up with a good strategy. The West Point cadets watching the speech didn't seem to know how to respond until the speech stopped being specific and started going in to broad, soaring generalities and hopeful themes - Obama's specialty. In the days following the speech it turned out that few of the specifics were actually totally true. The troop "surge" may not take place until Fall 2010, and they will only "start" to be pulled out in Summer 2011. The speech failed to be all things to all people, and thus was not well received.
President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech made up for it in a big way. It was masterfully written and beautifully delivered. Critics called it the best of Obama's career, and certainly the best of his Presidency so far. It spoke truth to the power of the Nobel committee, addressed the oddity of winning a peace prize while leading a nation engaged in two wars, acknowledged previous winners, and defended the use of military force while advancing progressive ideals. It was a perfect encapsulation of the Truman Project worldview - which makes sense since it was written by someone affiliated with the Truman Project. Writers from the progressive side to at least the conservative moderation of David Brooks loved the speech. About all critics of the speech could say was that it was rambling and disjointed. I loved the speech, but the critics are right. Everyone was happy with it because they could read what they wanted into the speech. Dan Drezner made an attempt to map out the various international relations theories referred to in the speech. It was another classic piece of Obama magic: choosing the middle path and creating buy-in from all sides by incorporating their arguments. It made for a powerful speech, but it will be hard to predict his future foreign policy moves based on a speech that left almost every door open.

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