Thursday, June 23, 2011

Is There Middle Ground on Afghanistan?

Reactions to Obama’s Afghanistan speech have been noticeably bipolar. On the one hand, there are loud voices on the hawkish right deploring the mixed message Obama’s sending to the Taliban by committing a still substantial military force to Afghanistan through 2014 while he publicizes his determination to pull troops out by a date that owes more to the political calendar than to military realities. On the other, we’re hearing equally emphatic voices on the dovish left deploring the fact that, judging by the number of American combat soldiers he’s proposing to leave in Afghanistan after the end of the surge, Obama’s still more gung-ho about prosecuting the Afghanistan war than Bush ever was.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not hearing many grateful sighs of relief that Obama’s staking out middle ground between these extremes. I suspect that Obama takes vitriolic criticism from both his right and left flanks as a sign that he must be doing something right. From all appearances, he’s temperamentally inclined to split ideological differences in the expectation that he can find a political sweet spot somewhere in the middle.

You can usually count on Andrew Sullivan to see the wisdom of Obama’s otherwise inscrutable ways. So it’s unsurprising that Sullivan regarded last night’s speech is another instance of Obama playing chess while the rest of us are furrowing our brows over a game of checkers (my emphasis):
“There is, as with the Iraq withdrawal, no triumphalism. But destroying half of al Qaeda's leadership, including Osama bin Laden, as Americans struggle in a stubbornly sluggish economy, is good enough. The longest war in the history of America will come to an end ... in three years' time. It will have lasted thirteen years. And Obama's pragmatism - his refusal to embrace either the Full McCain Jacket or the impulse to just get the hell out of there ASAP - has helped him. His moderation on this has allowed the pro-surge forces to have had their moment and their say, has scattered al Qaeda, and has provoked conservative voices of skepticism to emerge in the GOP to reshape the national debate. I see no the groundswell against this sentiment.”
Got that? By surging troops into Afghanistan then summarily withdrawing them, Obama created middle ground that wasn’t there before.  I guess the idea is that a year-and-one-half of militarily inconclusive surging has disabused a critical mass of Republicans of their illusions about "victory" and made a critical mass of Democrats grateful just to get our Afghanistan commitment back to pre-surge levels. Sullivan thinks that enough people answer to one description or the other to enable Obama to bring the war to a responsible end without caving in to extremists in either party.

Maybe that’s so.  But if it is, it will be because the politics of the Afghanistan war work out a lot differently than the politics of the Iraq war. The decision to invade Iraq may have been cooked up by a bunch of doctrinaire neo-cons in the recesses of the Bush administration, but something like 70% of the voting public and huge bipartisan congressional majorities bought into the idea before the invasion commenced in March of 2003.  Public support for the war gradually fell away to the point that, by the summer of 2006, born-again doves like Harry Reid weren’t reluctant to say that the “war was lost” and all but a few congressional Democrats weren’t reluctant to cut off war funding for troops in the field.

Since most of the congressional opponents of the Iraq war had supported it in the recent past, you’d have expected that, by the winter of 2006-7, a critical mass of them would still be traversing the middle ground between neo-con hawkishness and neo-McGovernite dovishness. At any rate, that was the expectation of the people who pressured Bush into forming the Iraq Study Group jointly chaired by two widely respected elder statesmen, Republican James Baker and Democrat Lee Hamilton.  That was the Washington establishment's way of inviting sensible Republicans and Democrats (aka "moderates") to join together to end the Iraq war “responsibly.”

You'll recall that most of Baker and Hamilton’s invitations were returned unopened because, at the end of the day, there weren't very many "sensible" people in the White House and the halls of Congress.  The idea that there had to be middle ground if we were determined enough, and perceptive enough, to find it turned out to be a pious illusion.  When it came to ending a war, even one as unpopular as the Iraq war had become, the ideological dynamics in each party encouraged movement away from the center toward the extremes. Otherwise, a president on his last legs politically like Bush couldn't have held together a coalition of hawkish Republicans large enough to obstruct the efforts of a united Democratic Party to stop the surge.

Why should the politics of the Afghanistan war be any different?


Anonymous said...

I'm a one world-historical threat at a time person. GW by dividing our forces and war-goals, made little progress on either. FDR had to decide the question, "Japan or Germany first?" He decided. FDR had to decided which fascist regime was the greater danger for the foreseeable future, and he decided. In Casablanca in early '43 FDR persuaded Churchill to join his "unconditional surrender" answer to when we'd know we'd won. Historians have second-guessed that decision, saying it prolonged the war in Europe. Their source? Some of the German generals and soldiers. I have been convinced such criticism is not well taken. A lot of American (and British) soldiers even on June 5, 1944 couldn't quite put their fingers on all the "whys" of the invasion of France or many of the ultimate "whys" either, but they knew what "over" entailed ... and so did their moms and dads. It was wise to set a concrete "end point" -- it got everyone on the same page even as it inevitably postponed other terrible sacrifices and decisions.

With bin laden out of our grasp coupled with our presumably on-going desire to kill him and thus further erode Al-Qaeda leadership, we began to pretend that the Taliban were the original enemy. We substituted the accomplices for the main perps.

In Iraq our policy was analogous to Roosevelt invading Mexico to eliminate any possibility of a North American Japanese landing, instead of fighting the navel battles in the Solomon Sea (erroneously dubbed the "Battle of the Coral Sea")and Midway. If Roosevelt had invaded Mexico imagine the doubt it would have sowed about not just our prioritizing the defeat of Germany, but the political credibility of further operations in the Pacific.

Unless you believe the world is so filled with dangerous potential enemies that the U.S. must stay on a permanent war footing, the way forward is to do all we can to disrupt any effort by Al-qaeda to re-group, to withdraw from Iraq, and to use the on-going threat of force in Afghanistan to weaken the mutual gravitational field between Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. To the extent the President's speech outlined these ideas, it is a winning strategy. -- Ben Currie

Unknown said...

The president's push to withdraw from Afghanistan is the right idea, but for the wrong reasons. Obama doesn't believe in the war on terror and is emotionally and ideologically opposed to any demonstration of U.S. will abroad. He believes ending the commitment will boost his re-election chances and make more defense dollars available for entitlement programs to ensure continuing democratic voting majorities.

Afghanistan is a money sucking pit with diminishing returns. Our troops need a break from the mission creep of nation building, fruit of the poisonous tree of counterinsurgency doctrine, and return to a small footprint, special operations focused approach on killing terrorists.