Wednesday, December 2, 2009

President Obama on Afghanistan

Speech By: President Barack Obama
Title: Policy Address on Afghanistan
Date: December 1, 2009
Location: Eisenhower Hall, United States Military Academy - West Point, New York
Occasion:  Policy Statement
Length (words): 4,583
Transcript Posted:
New York Times

Some observers opine that the President has been over-exposed since taking office. They argue he gives speeches rather than making policy and administering government, almost as if he were still on the campaign trail.

No reasonable person would say that on this occasion. One of the most difficult decisions a President can make is that of sending troops into harm’s way.

Symbolism adds an essential element to a good speech, and location is a time-tested way to enhance symbolism. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech would have been great in any locale. But with the Lincoln Memorial as backdrop, the carved stone visage of the Great Emancipator gazing down on the throng, it was an effective way to augment the powerful words of the speech.

In choosing the U.S. Military Academy at West Point for this policy address, the President has chosen a location heavy in symbolism. He addressed, face to face, an auditorium filled with the very people he will be ordering into harm’s way.

It’s a location which added a dramatic air to the President’s remarks - a drama which might have otherwise been lacking, considering the White House had already let it be known over the weekend that General McChrystal’s request for more troops would be agreed to by the President.

This speech might have been written by Ernest Hemingway. It consists mostly of short declarative sentences. That style differs markedly from most of the President’s other speeches.

Unlike many of his other speeches, this one relies on the use of the collective “we” - which creates that shared identification with the audience - rather than “I.” He uses the words, “we, we’ve or we’ll” a hundred times, roughly three times as often as he says “I or I’ll.”  It’s a subtle and welcome change. Particularly on this occasion. When you are addressing a room full of soldiers - some of whom will almost certainly not return because of your decision, audience identification is vital.

Another tendency of the President, which has been discussed here before, is to use the word “And” to begin a sentence. As previously noted, nothing in English grammar prohibits this, but the technique can be over-used. Tonight, it happened 28 times in a speech of only 232 sentences. That works out to 12 per cent of the time. That’s a rate I suspect Hemingway might have taken exception to.

As is so often the case, the President is addressing many audiences in this speech: The 43 nations who are allied in the struggle, the enemies we face, the two countries where the fighting is taking place, the rest of the world, the American people, the left-wing members of his own party in particular who object to the war, even the financial markets who will provide the capital to fund the war. Oh, yes, and that room full of cadets and their officers who will do the fighting.

On balance it is an effective speech.

It starts out establishing the reasons for the war in Afghanistan, noting that our nation was attacked on September 11, 2001. He recites a history of the war, touches on the evil presented by Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and announces a timetable for ending the conflict. He also announces that 30,000 additional American troops, and a total of 40,00 troops in total, will be assigned to the conflict.

He engages in some effective rhetorical flourishes - even touching on some of the elements of American exceptionalism: “But more than any other nation, the United States of America has underwritten global security for over six decades -- a time that, for all its problems, has seen walls come down, and markets open, and billions lifted from poverty, unparalleled scientific progress and advancing frontiers of human liberty.” It’s a traditional theme, largely avoided - in some cases even rejected - by the President, in previous speeches.

In the next to last paragraph he hearkens back to the 9/11 attacks which formed the basis for the beginning of his speech: “It's easy to forget that when this war began, we were united -- bound together by the fresh memory of a horrific attack, and by the determination to defend our homeland and the values we hold dear. I refuse to accept the notion that we cannot summon that unity again.” It’s an effective way to bring the speech full circle.

From The Bully Pulpit - Tom