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Analysts: Obama's Afghanistan speech crucial

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Afghanistan in context
  • Barack Obama's U.S. policy on Afghanistan has drifted, writers say
  • U.S. president scheduled to give major address on strategy on Tuesday
  • Authors: Obama has allowed U.S. domestic issues to push Afghanistan to background

(CNN) -- U.S. President Barack Obama has waited too long to address the instability in Afghanistan, putting at risk the efforts to stabilize the troubled country, a pair of authors said Monday.

Historian Simon Schama and journalist George Packer told CNN's Christiane Amanpour that U.S. policy toward Afghanistan has drifted as the Obama administration has tried to focus on domestic priorities.

The president is scheduled to unveil a new policy toward Afghanistan with a much anticipated speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, on Tuesday night. Many observers expect him to announce he will send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops, on top of the 68,000 already in Afghanistan.

"Obama has to make the case that we need 100,000 American troops in Afghanistan, which is what it will be after this surge, in order to protect our own streets from al Qaeda," said George Packer, staff writer for The New Yorker magazine and author of the "Interesting Times" blog and several books. "That is the case he tried to make in March, and he's going to have to make it again, because that is his strategy. It's not going to change very much."

Packer faulted the White House for concentrating on domestic issues, including health care reform and U.S. economic stability, and for the president failing to give a major speech on Afghanistan since March 2009, a silence that allowed public attention to slip.

"It's as if the White House thought, 'One speech and then we can turn our attention to other business, because we don't really want our first year to be about Afghanistan. We don't want the president out there continually, you know, beating the war drums when we've got all these other important issues, which are the issues that got him elected.'

"But Afghanistan didn't care about the White House's communications strategy, and the war went downhill very fast."

Packer said that the United States should look for success rather than victory in Afghanistan, with "success" being defined as a relatively stable government in Kabul capable of preventing extremists from taking over or making the country ungovernable.

Columbia University professor Simon Schama, author of the multiple-volume "History of Britain," urged Obama to return to the multifaceted role he had achieved as a candidate, willing to address many issues at the same time.

"He can't quite ever decide whether he's Mr. Focus or Mr. Multitask. He was actually elected to be President Multitasking, I think," Schama said. "And there are certain moments in the life of our great republic, actually, when no matter what the health reform is, no matter how much in deep doo-doo the economy is, the nation really is hungry for the utterance of a commander in chief."

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Schama called on the president to aspire to be like one of the country's greatest leaders, Abraham Lincoln, who has served as a kind of touchstone for Obama. The Obama presidential campaign actually began on the steps of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois, in which Lincoln made his "House Divided" speech.

"Barack, you've got to be Abraham Lincoln tomorrow night," Schama said. "You've got to tell the story beautifully, truthfully, honestly and bravely. You could do that."