The muted response of America’s allies — especially from those supposedly fighting alongside her in Afghanistan — to the President’s State of the Union (SOTU) speech is hardly surprising. President Obama devoted just 89 of his 7,000-plus word speech to discussing the war, and at the outset stressed his self-imposed July 2011 timeline for withdrawal.
He said: “There will be difficult days ahead. But I am confident we will succeed.” This one line — completely devoid of the rhetorical flourishes and flaming passions which he brings to his speeches on government spending, socialized healthcare and nuclear disarmament — has been interpreted by the allies (and by Afghans) as: “I’m looking to get out before my next election.”
President Obama’s cynical and dangerous aversion to basic war concepts such as victory and defeating the enemy have played into the hands of Continental Europeans looking for a reason to say “no” to Obama’s call for more equitable burden sharing among the allies.
The burden of the war in Afghanistan is nowhere near fairly shared among NATO allies. Germany continues to have a numerically large, but mostly ineffective, deployment in the North of the country. But German troops are all safely restricted to base by 6pm to tuck into legendary amounts of German beer. French President Nicolas Sarkozy humiliatingly snubbed Obama on national TV on Monday night to inform the world that France won’t be sending a single extra soldier to Afghanistan. And national caveats continue to bedevil the International Security and Assistance Force, as wounded servicemen lie dying in Afghanistan’s combat zones while perfectly good helicopters stand idle less than a mile away restricted from entering “hot’ areas.
Much to his amazement, Obama is experiencing the same thing that President Bush did: a Continental-wide “Non” from the very allies he’s devoted the best part of a year trying to woo. In that respect, you’d expect him to be grateful for the countries that have stepped up to the plate: the Netherlands, Denmark, Poland, as well as Australia and Canada to name a few.
And none more so than the United Kingdom: more British servicemen have sacrificed their lives in Afghanistan than the rest of Europe combined. But during his speech, President Obama again refused to acknowledge the dedication and sacrifice of the 10,000 British troops in Afghanistan, in what must now be seen as near-contempt for America’s greatest ally on the world stage.
No one is more surprised by his lack of results than Obama himself. After all, he’s been lauded as Europe’s first American President, with approval ratings to rival most A-list celebrities (at least in Western Europe). It was always easy for European leaders to say No to President Bush; in fact, French politicians continue to make a career out of bashing Bush, much like Obama himself. But it was meant to be impossible for Europe to say no to The One: he’s closing Guantanamo; he’s self-flagellated before the world’s media over America’s record on ‘torture’; he’s reached out to the atomic ayatollahs of Iran; he’s prostrated himself before the sacrosanct United Nations; and he’s apologized for America’s arrogance on French soil. Surely that should’ve been enough to secure Europe’s cooperation over Afghanistan?
Obviously not. France, Germany, Italy and Spain avoided putting their troops in harm’s way so long as they thought there was no penalty from President Bush. And as long as they think that Obama isn’t serious winning in Afghanistan, they will continue to do the same.
President Obama has not sent the message that he’s committed to this fight. His State of the Union speech merely confirmed that. A President’s SOTU address — keenly anticipated and carefully watched across the world and by the international media — is his statement of intent, a report on his top priorities and how he’s going to achieve them over the next year. President Obama’s 2010 SOTU said just one thing about Afghanistan: we’re on our way out, and sooner rather than later.
President Obama is a war president whether he likes it or not, and it increasingly looks like he’d rather not be. His speech at West Point in December, in front of young cadets looking for inspiration and leadership from their Commander-in-Chief was one of Obama’s weakest. But his almost dismissive reference to Afghanistan in the SOTU was even worse: it gave the impression that he just doesn’t care whether America wins or loses there.
Ironically, this may force Europe to more seriously ponder what type of relationship it wants with America. France and Germany have played the role of belligerent teenager for far too long, protesting America’s security guarantee while reaping the benefits of it. But for France and Germany, the stakes in Afghanistan are just as high as they are for America and Britain, and the costs of failure are higher still.
The war in Afghanistan is of monumental importance to NATO, both ideologically and organizationally. NATO is an alliance of liberal democracies, which is currently pitted against apocalyptical Islamists in South Asia. Afghanistan will test whether this Cold War institution can adapt to the security challenges of the 21st century, and failure would be unthinkable for both Europe and the United States.