Charles Krauthammer

WASHINGTON -- We shall fight in the air, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields, we shall fight in the hills -- for 18 months. Then we start packing for home.

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We shall never surrender -- unless the war gets too expensive, in which case, we shall quote Eisenhower on "the need to maintain balance in and among national programs" and then insist that "we can't simply afford to ignore the price of these wars."

The quotes are from President Obama's West Point speech announcing the Afghanistan troop surge. What a strange speech it was -- a call to arms so ambivalent, so tentative, so defensive.

Which made his last-minute assertion of "resolve unwavering" so hollow. It was meant to be stirring. It fell flat. In August, he called Afghanistan "a war of necessity." On Tuesday night, he defined "what's at stake" as "the common security of the world." The world, no less. Yet, we begin leaving in July 2011?

Does he think that such ambivalence is not heard by the Taliban, by Afghan peasants deciding which side to choose, by Pakistani generals hedging their bets, by NATO allies already with one foot out of Afghanistan?

Nonetheless, most supporters of the Afghanistan War were satisfied. They got the policy, the liberals got the speech. The hawks got three-quarters of what Gen. Stanley McChrystal wanted -- 30,000 additional U.S. troops -- and the doves got a few soothing words. Big deal, say the hawks.

But it is a big deal. Words matter because (BEG ITAL)will(END ITAL) matters. Success in war depends on three things: a brave and highly skilled soldiery, such as the U.S. military 2009, the finest counterinsurgency force in history; brilliant, battle-tested commanders such as Gens. David Petraeus and McChrystal, fresh from the success of the surge in Iraq; and the will to prevail as personified by the commander in chief.

There's the rub. And that is why at such crucial moments, presidents don't issue a policy paper. They give a speech. It gives tone and texture. It allows their policy to be imbued with purpose and feeling. This one was festooned with hedges, caveats and one giant exit ramp.


Charles Krauthammer

Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.

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