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Part One: The Strategic Challenge – The President’s Speech

By William Tucker

“This is the beginning — but not the end — of our effort to wind down this war. We will have to do the hard work of keeping the gains that we have made, while we drawdown our forces and transition responsibility for security to the Afghan government.” – U.S. President Barack Obama June 22, 2011

U.S. President Barack Obama gave a much anticipated speech on the future of the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan last week. As expected, he outlined the drawdown of U.S. forces in the region and touched on the continuing operations in Libya and Iraq. The speech really wasn’t a major policy speech – the President had described his intentions in the War on Terror some time ago. What was important about this speech is not what was discussed, but what was left out. In reality, the vague nature of the speech, along with elements that are noticeably absent, doesn’t come as a surprise. When a president delivers a major address it is not only meant for the U.S. public, but for the world at large. Indeed, the sway of the White House is felt far beyond the borders of the United States and the President is forced to keep his cards close to the vest.

The speech did include an element that gives us some insight into the view from the Oval Office.

“Already this decade of war has caused many to question the nature of America’s engagement around the world. Some would have America retreat from our responsibility as an anchor of global security, and embrace an isolation that ignores the very real threats that we face. Others would have America overextend ourselves, confronting every evil that can be found abroad.”

“We must chart a more centered course. Like generations before, we must embrace America’s singular role in the course of human events. But we must be as pragmatic as we are passionate; as strategic as we are resolute.”

Declaring that the U.S. must chart a centered course doesn’t make much sense – at least not strategically. But the point isn’t always to discuss the nuts and bolts of every policy decision. In this case the concern is that the U.S. doesn’t have the necessary bandwidth to impact the strategic decisions of other major powers. As I stated last week when discussing China’s assertiveness in the South Pacific, the reason Beijing feels compelled to push so far is the U.S. commitment to the Middle East and South Asia has absorbed much of the U.S. military and intelligence capabilities. This dynamic is shifting as the U.S. looks beyond Afghanistan and transitions in how it fights the War on Terror. Washington is looking to withdraw not because the situation in Afghanistan is stable enough – indeed the Taliban controls half the country – but because the U.S. cannot stay committed to a region that is of so little strategic importance.

Withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan will help Washington immensely, but will not solve several immediate challenges in the near term. Now that we are into the next campaign season the current, or next, President will be faced with several uncomfortable realities in the nation’s strategic picture. The war in Afghanistan may be winding down, but the fight of tomorrow is taking shape. Tomorrow we’ll discuss the challenges that the U.S. will face in Asia, Africa and South America.

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