Sounding like Bush or blaming him?

SOUNDING LIKE BUSH OR BLAMING HIM?…. One of the more common complaints I heard last night about President Obama’s speech on U.S. policy in Afghanistan is that it sounded a bit too much like his immediate predecessor.

The NYT noted today, for example, that the Obama “at times sounded like Mr. Bush in justifying this war. He celebrated the United States as a nation ‘founded in resistance to oppression’ and talked about its long record of sacrifice in ‘advancing frontiers of human liberty.'”

That’s certainly fair, and any similarities to George W. Bush are necessarily discouraging. But, while it was hardly the most important part of the West Point speech, one of the elements of the address that stood out for me was the way in which Obama called out Bush for pursuing a failed policy for so long.

The president noted that, soon after the war began, “al Qaeda was scattered and many of its operatives were killed. The Taliban was driven from power and pushed back on its heels. A place that had known decades of fear now had reason to hope.” It was Obama’s way of reminding us that conditions in Afghanistan, not too terribly long ago, were fairly stable and headed in the right direction.

And in the interest of explaining why a shift in U.S. policy is necessary now, Obama explained what went wrong in Afghanistan after the country had “reason to hope.”

“Then, in early 2003, the decision was made to wage a second war, in Iraq. The wrenching debate over the Iraq war is well-known and need not be repeated here. It’s enough to say that for the next six years, the Iraq war drew the dominant share of our troops, our resources, our diplomacy, and our national attention — and that the decision to go into Iraq caused substantial rifts between America and much of the world. […]

“[W]hile we’ve achieved hard-earned milestones in Iraq, the situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated. After escaping across the border into Pakistan in 2001 and 2002, al Qaeda’s leadership established a safe haven there. Although a legitimate government was elected by the Afghan people, it’s been hampered by corruption, the drug trade, an under-developed economy, and insufficient security forces.

“Over the last several years, the Taliban has maintained common cause with al Qaeda, as they both seek an overthrow of the Afghan government. Gradually, the Taliban has begun to control additional swaths of territory in Afghanistan, while engaging in increasingly brazen and devastating attacks of terrorism against the Pakistani people.

“Now, throughout this period, our troop levels in Afghanistan remained a fraction of what they were in Iraq. When I took office, we had just over 32,000 Americans serving in Afghanistan, compared to 160,000 in Iraq at the peak of the war. Commanders in Afghanistan repeatedly asked for support to deal with the reemergence of the Taliban, but these reinforcements did not arrive.”

There’s a passive quality to the rhetoric — the president said “reinforcements did not arrive,” not, “Bush didn’t send them” — but the underlying message is hardly subtle.

Afghanistan was headed in the right direction … then Bush turned to Iraq … then Afghanistan began to deteriorate … then al Qaeda reorganized … then the Afghan government faltered … then the Taliban started reclaiming much of the country. U.S. commanders requested more U.S. troops and didn’t get them.

In context, this hardly constituted Bush-bashing — it makes perfect sense for Obama to explain how we got to where we are — but it left no doubt who bears responsibility for a U.S. policy that stopped being effective years ago.