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July 11, 2010
David Warsh, Proprietor


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Comes a Moment to Decide

As a (sometimes) shadow newspaper columnist, one who joined the Obama bandwagon before the Iowa caucuses made the Illinois Senator a favorite, Economic Principals feel obligated and/or entitled to keep track of the shifting tides of his presidency. EP tipped George W. Bush for the presidency in 1998 and stayed with him online as well. Its habit of constructive engagement goes back to Ronald Reagan.   

Obama is approaching a decision that will make or break his presidency, not in the long view of history, but now, in real time. He must summon the courage to begin to leave Afghanistan next year, however ignominiously, and accept the nearly certain defeat of most American war aims that will ensue, perhaps in advance of the 2012 election.

Was Obama right, as a candidate, to adopt the Afghanistan war as his own in the first place, in a forthright speech in August 2007? Who knows?  Surely it helped him win the election to be seen as a hairy-chested Democrat who understood the importance of “the right war” against Osama bin-Laden. Could he have won with something less – an Eisenhower-like promise to “go to Afghanistan” in order to conduct a strategic review? We’ll never know.  

 What we do know is that the president has by now made the war George W. Bush started in Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan his own.

 Here’s something else that EP knows, which the president knows too, or should know, since he was there, though it is not exactly common knowledge.  It was Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), not Gen. David Petraeus, who brought the American war in Iraqi to a foreseeable end.  Pelosi’s elevation after the Democrats regained control of the House in November 2006 led to a series of budget skirmishes in early 2007 that made it clear she had the votes to shut down funding of the war.

Bush responded with his surge, not as a demonstration of credible resolve – that was the cover story – but to obscure the fact that the situation had changed decisively and that the Americans would soon be leaving. The strategy was daring and clever. It gave everyone a chance to take a deep breath and regroup. It permitted the “Anbar awakening” (a Sunni militia financed by the US) to shut down Al Qaeda factions and enlist ad-hoc insurgents. The current fragile truce among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds emerged. Iraq grasped the opportunity to reclaim itself. It was the fig leaf the Americans needed.

Something like this presumably is the rationale behind the 30,000 more US troops that Obama committed to the Afghan campaign last December after a laborious and showy review, with a promise to begin withdrawals in July 2011. But that’s where the logic breaks down. There seems to be no similar balance of forces in Afghanistan – just the resurgent Taliban and a couple of other Taliban-like factions, interested in preserving Afghanistan’s millennia-long winning streak against foreign occupiers; a glorious patchwork of bloody-minded tribes; the US- backed government of Hamid Karzai; and, oh yes, the battered remnant of Al-Qaeda-on-the-run in the rugged mountains to the north and east of Kabul.  There is no coalition with an obvious incentive to offer the US a face-saving “decent interval” on the way out.  

Senior military commanders, at least some of them, still think that they could “win this thing” if they just had another decade or two – that’s just what Gen. Creighton Abrams argued forty years ago in Vietnam.  Henry Kissinger, who presided over the American retreat from Vietnam, told the Financial Times the other day that “a long struggle” would be required.  He was echoing the behind-the-scenes criticism of the Obama administration that got Gen. Stanley McCrystal fired from his job as commander of NATO forces last month. 

(Michael Hastings, the Rolling Stone correspondent who wrote the article that led to McCrystal’s forced resignation, clearly violated the trust that permits military commanders and journalists to travel together, as the New York Times’ legendary John Burns noted last week.  But Hastings produced a remarkably informative story.)  

Kissinger was more direct. “The basic issue is that the diplomatic and military elements of the current strategy are not compatible with each other. The military strategy cannot be accomplished within the deadlines and the deadline encourages the adversary to wait us out.” Trust Kissinger to use one word (diplomatic) when he means another (political).  But his point was clear:  the Taliban read the newspapers.

Probably only a few hard-rock conservatives expect that the US-led NATO forces can remain in Afghanistan indefinitely. US elections later this year and in 2012 will provide the test.  An editorial writer for The Economist wrote the other day that “A Western withdrawal would leave Afghanistan vulnerable to a civil war that might suck in the local powers, including Iran, Pakistan, India and Russia…. Having invaded their country, the West has a duty to return it to them in a half-decent state.”

(The magazine’s reporter in Kabul had the good sense to contradict the editorialist. NATO countries, including a reluctant US, “are increasingly concluding that there will have to be a negotiated end to the war.  But, he wrote, “The Taliban are in no hurry to talk.”)

The United States has been at war in Afghanistan for nine years. Nobody has been a more perspicacious critic of American foreign policy in that time than Andrew Bacevich, the former US Army colonel turned teacher and author.  In a series of books beginning with American Empire: the Realities and Consequences of US Diplomacy in 2002, the Boston University professor has argued that the can-do mentality which emerged when the all-volunteer army (meaning professional) was created in 1973, metastasized after the collapse of the Soviet Union and led the United States to a non-stop state of “semi-war” ever since in various hotspots around the world. Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War, his most cogent and succinct book yet, will appear next month.

On The New Republic blog last week, Bacevich taunted the president, arguing that Obama “lacks the guts to get out.”  The White House has bought into the conventional wisdom about American power: “It’s all so complicated.  There are risks involved. Things might go wrong. There’s an election to think about.”  When Americans look to Washington, he wrote, “they see a cool, calculating, dispassionate president whose administration lacks a moral core.”

Here’s hoping that Bacevich is wrong. With its bias towards hope, EP expects that Obama will rise to the occasion. But either way, it has come to this:  as the old hymn has it (written in 1845 by James Russell Lowell to protest the US war with Mexico), Once to every man and nation comes a moment to decide.

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One Comment

  1. Not to disagree with thesis of the column, but what irony in its concluding reference: but for the Manifest Destiny reflected in Polk’s War with Mexico, the European experiment in North America called the United States would have turned out very differently.

    Monday, July 12, 2010 at 11:10 am | Permalink

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