A persuasion event like Mr. Obama’s West Point speech on the Afghan Surge is a multidimensional play that can persuade in both the short and long term. It can achieve immediate change and can prepare for later change. Multidimensional, right? Let’s think about this speech with persuasion concepts.
Use of “I” and “We” as Attribution Plays
Mr. Obama used “We” (or equivalents) about twice as often as he used “I” terms. Most frequently, he applied “we” terms in ways that bound diverse groups together over long time periods. The Surge is what we have done. It is normative and normal. It’s American. It is Our Thing.
In contrast, Obama used “I” terms about half as often (about 50/100 by my count). Most often these “I” uses referred exactly to his unique situation as President. In other words he said “I” when he was the only person who could do, say, or think the action, sentence, or idea. I think he did this too much, but it may be the way he is and you don’t change that fundamental for one persuasion play.
On balance, the speech staked out a Good We that encourages a lot of people to see this as Our Thing. Obama’s also standing up as the leader with his heavy use of “I,” but that’s his call.
Central Route with High WATT and strong Arguments
Mr. Obama essentially followed Peggy Noonan’s plan with a Joe Friday, just the facts, approach. Obama started High WATT and hit us with his arguments, just the facts. He outlined a brief history and analysis of that, then his research leading to his plan, followed by a recounting of alternatives and a refutation of each. This is a standard debate or law case approach to persuasion and it is just fine.
Positions on the Long War are well developed by now and it is difficult for me to see how this debate case changes anyone. Mr. Obama said nothing new with the case (however he did make news with his anti-war supporters who probably cannot believe what he just said last night), so it’s hard for me to see how he’s going to change anyone. He does look serious, credible, and Presidential; that’s fine.
That’s important in a war. Consider the First Rule of Marine Gunfighting:
“1. Bring a gun. Preferably, bring at least two guns. Bring all of your friends who have guns.”
Mr. Obama needs as many friends with guns. If we’re talking about gun fights, people need good reasons to get involved. A strong Central Route play is the most efficient and effective way to accomplish this.
The Persuasive Function of the Timeline for Withdrawal
Mr. Obama announced in his speech both a Surge and a Drawdown.
“But taken together, these additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces, and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011.”
And, in anticipation of his critics, he notes:
“Finally, there are those who oppose identifying a time frame for our transition to Afghan responsibility. Indeed, some call for a more dramatic and open-ended escalation of our war effort — one that would commit us to a nation-building project of up to a decade. I reject this course because it sets goals that are beyond what can be achieved at a reasonable cost, and what we need to achieve to secure our interests. Furthermore, the absence of a time frame for transition would deny us any sense of urgency in working with the Afghan government. It must be clear that Afghans will have to take responsibility for their security, and that America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan.”
My persuasion analysis of this is that Mr. Obama believes he generates more power by using the timeline as a persuasion play. (Stated the Marine way, he’ll get more friends with guns). He’ll Surge and send more American Guns. He’ll pressure the international community (NATO), and the Afghan and Pakistan governments to Surge more guns. He thinks he can rally more Guns by opening a big window for a short period of time. In other words, he’s making a Scarcity Argument (not Cue).
The counter-argument to this is that our enemies know this and will wait us out. Military readers will hoot at this because “waiting” is another way of saying, “They lost the initiative.” While they wait, we (US, Afghans, Pakistanis, NATO, and everyone else with guns) are killing them, securing the population, and reducing their power. We pick the time and place while they hope we cannot find them. And, worse still for our enemies is this thought: Maybe Mr. Obama is lying about the Drawdown. Please note this line from the speech:
“Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground.”
Oops. We’ve now got a set of weasel words that make it possible for continuing Surges in Afghanistan depending upon conditions on the ground. The question here is whether you believe Mr. Obama would act like Mr. Bush with the Surge in Iraq. Would Obama shout through the howling protest in July 2011 like Mr. Bush did in 2007 with Iraq? Hey, isn’t Mr. Obama already shouting through the protests of his own party right now?
So, I’m a bad guy hiding in a cave. Who’s making the better argument about timelines, Mr. Obama or Mr. McCain? Right now, I think the Bad Guys feel more pressure from Mr. Obama. Obama is trying to fight the Western Way of War as described by Victor Davis Hanson.
I appreciate that the Bad Guys are playing for time, but as the noted liberal economist John Maynard Keynes observed, in the long run we are all dead. Thus, the Long Run is a losing strategy.
So, now it becomes a war of attrition with Osama trading believers for time. That ain’t a strong horse.
If you were against the Long War before the speech, you probably still are. It appears that Mr. Obama calculates that you cannot make a serious difference in his plan, so go join Code Pink and protest. He will respectfully leave you to howl in the wind while he does his business. (Sounds like Mr. Bush, huh?)
If you were not against the Long War, you don’t have many reasons to reject Mr. Obama’s plan. Sure, you can quibble like Mr. McCain over the effect of the timeline or how are we going to pay for it or whatever you want to argue about, but you will be hard pressed to be against Mr. Obama on a simple up or down basis.
And realize that this holds not just for Americans, but for every citizen of the world.
Mr. Obama, I think, has maneuvered himself into an extremely strong and flexible position with his persuasion. He has the initiative and everyone else has to react to him. He has put polite, but firm pressure on everyone to play now. He has described limits that only a zealot can resist. He’s running the play.
The Bad Guys cannot be rejoicing over any of this. A new American President has staked his personal and professional reputation and self esteem on winning this. They have just barely survived eight years with Mr. Bush. They have not produced a revolution on the Arab Street (remember that one?) and are running out of allies and caves. They’ve got resources, but they cannot feel today the way they felt on September 12, 2001. They can expect up to four more years of this and maybe even four more after that.
Who’s hand would you prefer to play?
Finally, consider for yourself the domestic politics of this. A Democratic President is gunfighting. No J’s for this guy – he’s taking it to the rack. Interesting possibilities. Will this affect any health care reform votes? Who are gunfighting Republicans on the bench?
One speech with 4600 words delivered in 30 minutes.
Remember the Rule: Persuasion is strategic or it is not.