Global Eyes on the President at West Point | | 11.30.09

As everyone knows, President Obama will address the nation on Tuesday night and reveal his decision on what to do in Afghanistan.  Most weekend commentary focused on the announcement’s political implications at home and how various players in and around Afghanistan will see it.  But there will be another and in the long run at least as important audience: the political and diplomatic leaders of the major nations of the world.

As reported at the time, during the last several months I have attended conferences and presentations in various European capitals.  All in one way or another concerned global security.  On the side I spoke with additional political and journalistic players.  The result was a global snapshot of official and semi-official opinion from places as diverse as China, India, Russia, Palestine, and various parts of Europe, both in and out of the E.U.

What I sensed in total was growing doubt about the president.  He speaks well, everyone acknowledged, but is there substance behind the rhetoric?  He is given to sweeping pronouncements.  But will he, can he, follow through?  He commands the most capable military force on the globe.  But does he have the stomach for a fight?  Does he have the strength to make and stick with hard choices, or any choice at all?  As one globally prominent (and I would have thought friendly to the president) American journalist summed up global opinion at a conference in Geneva: “Machiavelli said it is better to be feared than loved.  Mr. Obama is loved.”

So when the president addresses the nation tomorrow night, he will be addressing these global players as well as the rest of us.  How they grade his presentation will have a profound impact on what he and his administration will be able to achieve in international circles during the next three years.

What we have learned so far about the speech and its substance is not encouraging.

First, the speech itself: we have not yet heard it, of course.  Drafting may not even have been completed.  Different administrations work differently.  In the Reagan Administration (where I was a speechwriter for the president), we never had the kind of cliffhanger, last-minute drafting dramas that seem to have been common in, say, the Clinton White House.  Still, on major foreign policy speeches editing and even drafting by the president himself and appeals from various parts of the national security establishment could continue almost until Mr. Reagan stepped to the podium.  When he returned from his meeting with Mr. Gorbachev in Reykjavik, President Reagan was writing in long hand, on a yellow pad, parts of his report to the nation within an hour of going on camera.

But we do know one detail about Mr. Obama’s speech, its location.  Virtually all past major presidential addresses on global security matters have been broadcast from either the White House itself – usually the Oval Office – or the House of Representatives, as the president addressed a joint session of Congress.  I am talking about all presidential addresses here, not just recent ones but going back to Franklin Roosevelt.  These settings convey majesty.  They convey the seriousness of the moment and weight of the Constitutional office the man occupies.  When addressing Congress on such matters, they represent an appeal for the coming together of the branches of the American government behind the common mission of ensuring the nation’s security.

On Tuesday Mr. Obama will speak from West Point.  Surely the speech will be well advanced.  The visuals will be impressive, perhaps even moving.  But at least on a subliminal level, the choice of setting is more likely to heighten rather than ease global doubts about the speaker and his administration.  For Team Obama has chosen to give their man a stage that, in the context of this moment, suggests they and he are thinking in terms of a candidate in campaign not a president of the United States at a moment of decision.   And here we come to the essence of global doubts about the president — that he is a campaigner, not a leader.

Regarding the speech’s substance, the one leaked detail – no one seems to know if it is true or not – is that, while approving a troop increase in the 30,000 range, he will also announce a comparatively slow deployment, more like Johnson in Vietnam than Bush for the surge in Iraq.  If true, the international impression of indecision, lack of strength, dearth of seriousness in the president and his circle will become larger and more vivid.

There come moments in presidential communications when impressions coalesce and either the man in the office becomes larger – as Reagan and Roosevelt unfailingly did after such occasions – or smaller in global eyes.  For the nation’s sake, let’s hope Mr. Obama is seen as larger after tomorrow night.

But first signs are not encouraging.

This entry was posted in Political Commentary: General and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.