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Obama's Afghan speech sends message home

Mark Mardell | 22:19 UK time, Sunday, 28 March 2010

obama_ap226tall.jpg"Got some marines in the house!" shouted the commander-in-chief, almost in campaign mode. Except Obama has never worn a leather bomber jacket, emblazoned with the American Eagle and the words "Air Force One", to address a political rally.

Yet his first appearance in Afghanistan since he became president is deeply political. "You inspire me!" he told them, before going on to say that they stood for values that America desperately needs, like sacrifice, honour and decency, that the American military had done what was required while so many other institutions had let America down.

I've spent the last three days watching Republicans campaign, and a constant refrain from the speakers and the crowds is the suggestion, sometimes put very bluntly, that Obama doesn't support the troops, and doesn't behave as a proper commander-in-chief.

There are never any specifics, but it matters a great deal in a country where the military are held in greater, more reverend regard, and have more political clout, than any democracy that I can name. If a politician is not for the troops, under all circumstances, it means he or she is unpatriotic.

Obama's speech was rousing but not gung-ho. He gave a run-down of how the war in Afghanistan was "absolutely essential" and how "we are going to keep them on the run". He concluded that section with the declaration: "The USA does not quit, you do not quit... we will prevail!"

But his main message was not about the progress of the war but his attitude towards the military. He talked about his anguish about the sacrifices they made, and how he was humbled by it. The tone is very much his own.

Perhaps it was that white shirt underneath the bomber jacket but he reminded me of a military chaplin, rather than a faux general. He told the assembled troops that he would "do the right thing" for them back home and listed improving pay, benefits and child care. He would ensure better care for wounded warriors, particularly those with traumatic stress and brain injury.

It is the Obama dilemma in a nutshell.

I am sure his promises mean more to the men and women gathered before him than blood-curdling rhetoric, but you can almost hear the sneers of his opponents about a social worker-in-chief. He told the troops that politics back home looked messy but there was no daylight between the parties when it came to support for the troops.

His first presidential visit to Afghanistan aims to convince people his stance is what patriotism really looks like.


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