Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Grading President Obama's Speech on Afghanistan

HOW GOOD WAS PRESIDENT Obama's justification for sending 30,000 troops to Afghanistan?

You would hope pretty good. Placing 30,000 young Americans in harm's way has more at stake than the rationale for watching Old School over Office Space.

If you're committing that many people to a war-ravaged country on the brink of toppling to the Taliban, you would want your rationale to be air tight, your methodology ultra sound. So, politics aside, just how convincing was he? Or, put another way, if his speech were a college essay, what kind of grade would it receive?

Most professors of freshman composition would be paying attention to Mr. Obama's organization and reasoning. Was his argument based on sound principles or easy fallacies? Did he provide a thesis? Did he lay out his points? Did he provide specific details to support his arguments? Did his arguments cohere? Interestingly, his immediate audience of cadets and his frothy but physically distant audience of congressmen were, no doubt, asking similar questions.

One of the key strategies to a good essay is making sure the author and the audience are on the same page regarding the terms and facts of the topic. To ensure this, Mr. Obama gave a brief and, I would say, rather objective history of the nation's military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11. He refrained from criticizing President W. Bush's ridiculous troop buildup in Iraq (over 100,000) but noted the staggering imbalance between those in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the Taliban and al-Qaida lurk. This backstory may have been a little long, but it was important to set the stage, to bring everyone up to speed so that they could all start this surreal race to troop deployment on the same foot.

To his credit, the president did put his thesis foot forward. He stuck it out there and, sort of fearlessly, he ran with it. Never one to shy away from his plan of attack, Mr. Obama stuck to his guns. He also avoided cliches, unlike the author of this post.

His thesis is impossible to miss:

These facts compel us to act along with our friends and allies. Our overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.

To meet that goal, we will pursue the following objectives within Afghanistan. We must deny al-Qaida a safe-haven. We must reverse the Taliban's momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces and government, so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan's future.

We will meet these objectives in three ways. First, we will pursue a military strategy that will break the Taliban's momentum and increase Afghanistan's capacity over the next 18 months. . . Second, we will work with our partners, the U.N., and the Afghan people to pursue a more effective civilian strategy, so that the government can take advantage of improved security. . . Third, we will act with the full recognition that our success in Afghanistan is inextricably linked to our partnership with Pakistan.

Not bad. Direct. Clear. Hard to misinterpret. Those of you expecting a one sentence thesis statement like the one you wrote for your five-paragraph essay on why recycling is good for the earth may be puzzled by this multi-paragraph assertion. But, for a longish speech, this is actually a fairly concise thesis. He numbers his points (three is standard; five or six are way too many and one or two can feel skimpy).

One could quibble over certain terminology. Can anyone, for example, ever agree on what, exactly, a "more effective civilian strategy" might look like? What does it mean to "defeat" al-Qaida? Defeat how? Military personnel and Christian congressmen may have different ideas about this. He gets marked off a few points here for unclear phrasing, but it's certainly forgivable. Justifying deployment into minefields is a real minefield.

Also, interestingly, Mr. Obama employs another classic rhetorical strategy. He names and refutes the major criticisms of his thesis.

I recognize that there are a range of concerns about our approach. So let me briefly address a few of the prominent arguments that I have heard, and which I take very seriously. . . First, there are those who suggest that Afghanistan is another Vietnam. . . Second, there are those who acknowledge that we cannot leave Afghanistan in its current state but suggest that we go forward with the troops that we have. . . Finally, there are those who oppose identifying a timeframe for our transition to Afghan responsibility.

Notice each of the sentences in the above paragraph are the first (and topic) sentences of Obama's body paragraphs. Notice how short they are--how to the point. This method of stating and refuting the major arguments against your ideas does not show weakness; rather it demonstrates that Mr. Obama has thought about his plan, has weighed the opposite approaches and has, with full knowledge of contrary opinions, made a decision.

Grading such a speech is tough because how valid you think an author's ideas are can largely depend on your level of agreement with the author's political or social views. For example, someone who is a conservative Christian would probably find an argument mandating prayer in school entirely rational and perhaps even objectively on point, whereas someone more progressive would find the same argument an objective violation of the separation of church and state and, therefore, specious.

So, how convincing you think Mr. Obama's arguments are could depend on your own cultural and political barometer for rightness.

That said, I'm going to undermine my own argument. Though I am personally opposed to sending more troops to Afghanistan, I found Mr. Obama's rationale surprisingly convincing. I buy (for the most part) his argument. He made me alter how I think about this issue; he got me to consider his point of view. When it comes to a persuasive text, that is generally as much as you can hope for.

So, for this speech, Mr. Obama gets an A-.


  1. Why is it you give Obama good grades but not Palin, Bush or McCain? Just goes to show that all professors are liberals.

  2. You're grading for style as opposed to content. I agree with your grade on execution but for content, he gets a C or a D. What good is organization if the meaning is flawed?

  3. I wonder if Obama read "The Uses of Argument" in college.... It's author, Stephen Toulmin, died on Dec. 4. Some of the methods/styles you bring up about Obama's remarks are covered in his book.

  4. I'd love to see your comments about the Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, which I found more persuasive and more much substantive. Very impressively philosophical and, dare I say, theological, in that he meditated on human nature, and the nature of good and evil in a fallen world.