Voice

What to listen for in Obama's speech

Readers of this blog know that I think the war in Afghanistan is misguided, and I am disappointed that President Obama is about to make what I regard as a major strategic blunder. That said, here are the 5 questions that I'll be thinking about when I listen to his remarks this evening.

1. Why does he believe that 30,000 more troops will lead to success in Afghanistan, given that the ratio of foreign troops relative to the local population will still be much smaller than the number required for successful military occupations?

2. Even staunch advocates of the war concede that our task is "daunting," and several independent studies and reports -- including General McChrystal's own assessment -- maintain that the United States will have to stay in Afghanistan for at least five to ten years, at a cost of billions of dollars per year. Will the president say this explicitly, or will he try to convince us that these reports are wrong and that it won't take nearly that long or cost nearly that much?

3. How will this new escalation in Afghanistan deal with al Qaeda's "safe havens" in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere?

4. What domestic programs or military expenditures will be cut in order to pay for this escalation? Alternatively, what new revenue sources is Obama planning to exploit in order to fund an expanded war?  (I don't really expect him to answer this question, but its one we should all be asking.)

5. How long is he giving the Afghan government to get its act together? Does he set a firm deadline or just some sort of vague benchmark. If the Karzai government cannot or will not reform itself, will Obama explicitly promise the American people that he will disengage? And if he does make such a promise, doesn't that mean that this is not a "war of necessity" after all?

DAVID FURST/AFP/Getty Images

Sidebar

The Third-Rate Third Way

Just a few years ago, politicians like British Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.S. President Bill Clinton rejected left-right distinctions and proclaimed the emergence of a new “Third Way.” English sociologist Anthony Giddens, whose book The Third Way provided much of the intellectual ballast for the movement, called it a “fundamental paradigm shift in politics” and predicted that it would “dominate the next twenty or thirty years.” Leaders embracing the Third Way -- which combines a reliance on free markets with progressive social policies -- gained power in Germany, Belgium, Italy, and several other countries. Prominent politicians and public intellectuals debated Third Way principles at conferences in Florence, New York City, and Berlin, reinforcing the impression that an innovative global movement had been born.

Today, however, this once contagious movement looks less promising than its proponents anticipated. Blair’s popularity has eroded steadily over the past year, and several other Third Way leaders have experienced significant electoral setbacks. The recent wave of antigovernment protests in Europe and the continued weakness of the euro have put Third Way governments on the defensive. The U.S. economy remains strong, but Third Way rhetoric was noticeably absent from the 2000 presidential election. And at the most recent gathering of centrist politicians, held in Berlin in June 2000, the phrase “Third Way” was abandoned in favor of the bland “progressive governance,” raising new doubts about the movement’s claims to ideological novelty.

The initial popularity of Third Way politics was due in part to the natural tendency of political leaders to emulate success. By combining conservative views on free markets with liberal concerns about social justice (while ignoring the thorny issue of how one resolves trade-offs between them), both Clinton and Blair were able to seize the center without appearing overly opportunistic. The “Third Way” made “triangulation” sound like a principled innovation rather than a cynical political tactic. And with U.S. and British success, politicians in other industrial democracies were quick to leap on the bandwagon.

So why did the movement lose steam? One problem may be boredom: Though it is hard to find anything objectionable in the ideology, it’s equally hard to find anything exciting. There was genuine drama in the old struggle between left and right, but only the most dedicated wonks will find their pulses quickening while reading the banal proclamations from a typical Third Way proceeding. Second, attendance at annual Third Way conferences has not helped save politicians who fail to deliver at home, demonstrating that membership in the Third Way club cannot guarantee electoral success. Third, the allure of these policies may have owed less to the program itself than to the personal charisma of its proponents; men like Clinton, Blair, or German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder have few equals in the fine art of making vague nostrums sound fresh and appealing. Finally, Third Way thinkers had little to offer nondemocratic and less developed countries, except for the familiar (and often unwelcome) advice to become more like the West. As a result, the program has had little impact outside the Western world. Political fads fade when they are mostly style and no substance, and the Third Way is beginning to look less like the wave of the future and more like a catchy slogan with a short shelf life.