Today is not the first time President Obama has addressed the graduating class of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and used the opportunity to speak about his vision for US national security policy. He did so in 2010. And to give away the punch line: to a fairly tepid response by the cadets. (As a comparison, President George W. Bush fared much better in his 2002 and 2006 commencement addresses at the Academy.)
Based on that 2010 experience as well as other speeches that the President has given to US troops, there are two things to look for in how the President frames the withdrawal from Afghanistan at West Point today. The first is how the military audience reacts to the President’s announcement of the complete US withdrawal by the end of 2016, and the second is whether—and how—the President defines his plan with respect to broader implications for ending the “Forever War” against Al Qaeda.
Headed into the day’s event, the White House is already coping with a mixed reaction to the timetable for complete withdrawal, which the President previewed in the Rose Garden on Tuesday. The West Point speech thus offers an opportunity as well as a risk in how the cadets react. A strong positive reaction will help shape the White House’s message that the troops are behind the President’s plan and could influence the discourse surrounding how this all moves forward. A negative or muted reaction won’t exactly help.
Let’s compare (video clips of) the President’s prior remarks and his audiences’ reactions—lows and highs—when he announced the end of the combat operations in Iraq in 2010.
The first video clip is the President’s statement to West Point’s graduating class of 2010. He stated, “we are poised to end our combat mission in Iraq this summer.” The response he got: polite applause. (Admittedly it was that kind of day for the President—it appears he had to cut “That’s a lot of cheering” from his prepared remarks after delivering a joke earlier in the speech.)
That said, the White House team recovered some lost ground about three weeks later. The President repeated the exact same phrase—“we are poised to end our combat mission in Iraq this summer”—this time before uniformed troops at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida. The Federal News Service’s transcript records — in a parenthetical — that this statement was followed by no less than “(cheers, whistles, applause),” and the video clip is below.
Today at West Point, the second item to watch for is how the President might frame the timetable for withdrawal and the potential end to the armed conflict with Al Qaeda. On that front, it is worth considering a statement made in his speech at Bagram Air Base in 2012. That speech and the relevant line were flagged in a tweet late yesterday by Marie Harf, Deputy Spokesperson for the State Department.
The President delivered that line – “This time of war began in Afghanistan and this is where it will end” – as the crescendo in concluding his remarks from Bagram. Let’s see whether he develops that concept at West Point as well as in the coming days. Indeed, we can anticipate an odd juxtaposition over the months ahead — while the US mission in Afghanistan draws to a close, US operations against Al Qaeda and associated forces will continue, if not ramp up, in other parts of the globe. How the White House frames that reality starts (again) today.