Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Afghanistan Clock is Ticking

I don’t think you can overstate how ominous General McChrystal’s words about the Kandahar campaign are for Obama’s political future (my emphasis):

“On Thursday, during a visit to NATO headquarters here, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal admitted that preparations for perhaps the most critical operation of the war -- the campaign to take control of Kandahar, the Taliban's birthplace -- weren't going as planned. He said winning support from local leaders, some of whom see the Taliban fighters not as oppressors but as their Muslim brothers, was proving tougher than expected. The military side of the campaign, originally scheduled to surge in June and finish by August, is now likely to extend into the fall.

"’I don't intend to hurry it,’ McChrystal told reporters traveling with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. ‘It will take a number of months for this to play out. But I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. It's more important we get it right than we get it fast.’”
Politically speaking, Obama needs McChrystal to get it right fast. The tolerance of a sizeable part of the Democratic base for any military expedition is measured in months, if not weeks—think of the people who flocked to Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in the spring and early summer of 2003 within weeks of the fall of Baghdad. That constituency has only been quiet about Afghanistan lately because it consists largely of the same people who are psychologically invested in the passage and success of ObamaCare. Judging from what happened to public opinion about the Iraq war between the 2003 invasion and the 2004 election, I think it’s pretty safe to say that the rest of the Democratic base lacks the fortitude to stand against vocally anti-war comrades for much more than a year. Obama’s promise last fall to commence a troop withdrawal by July 2011 suggests that he agrees.

McChrystal is certainly making it sound like the military situation will still be up in the air by next summer. What happens then? Obama will face a choice: he can either stand up to his base by continuing a war (that NATO allies will probably be abandoning) with mostly Republican support, or capitulate to his base when that will look to a broad cross-section of the electorate like an admission of defeat and how poor his judgment was when he decided to escalate the war last fall. That bears more than a casual resemblance to the choice Lyndon Johnson faced in the spring of 1968 when he decided not to run for reelection in the face of the anti-war rebellion within his own party.

I suppose that, if you put your mind to it, you could imagine a worse political predicament for a sitting Democratic president. But it wouldn’t be easy.

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