There is much second guessing President Obama’s speech last week regarding the decision the administration has reached about the future of the conflict in Afghanistan and the border areas of Pakistan. Faced with only bad choices to resolve the conflict the Bush administration had let fester while focusing attention on the second war it launched in Iraq the President picked the least awful option that hopefully can lead to a non-disastrous conclusion. Hendrik Hertzberg summarizes the dilemma faced by the President:
There are no good options for the United States in Afghanistan. That has been the conventional wisdom for some years now, and this time the conventional wisdom—the reigning cliché—happens to be true. President Obama did not pretend otherwise in his address at West Point last week. His grimly businesslike speech was a gritty, almost masochistic exercise in the taking of responsibility. What he had to say did not please everyone; indeed, it pleased no one. Given the situation bequeathed to him and to the nation, pleasure was not an option. His speech was a sombre appeal to reason, not a rousing call to arms. If his argument was less than fully persuasive, that was in the nature of the choices before him. There is no such thing as an airtight argument for a bad choice—not if the argument is made with a modicum of honesty.
In November, two months into the gruelling, three-month review of Afghanistan policy that culminated in last week’s address, the Pentagon offered the President four options, each accompanied by a number, with each number representing an increase in the American troop commitment. But these were variations on a theme. As Obama seems to have realized, his true choices, of which there were also four, were wider and more fundamental: to begin immediately to wind down the American military presence; to maintain the status quo; to commit to a more or less open-ended, more or less full-fledged “counter-insurgency” war; or to pursue some version of the course he has now charted, in which a fresh infusion of military force and civilian effort is paired with a strong signal that America’s patience and resources, on which there are many other demands, are not unlimited.
Obama did the best he could to make a positive case for the path he has chosen, but—chillingly, bleakly—the principal virtue of his choice remains the vices of the others. Withdrawal, beginning at once? The political and diplomatic damage to Obama would be severe: a probable Pentagon revolt; the anger of NATO allies who have risked their soldiers’ lives (and their leaders’ political standing) on our behalf; the near-certainty that a large-scale terrorist attack, whether or not it had anything to do with Afghanistan, would be met at home not with 9/11 solidarity but with savage, politically lethal scapegoating. Even so, if “success,” however narrowly defined, is truly an outright impossibility, then withdrawal may still be the most responsible choice. But it is not yet obvious that a better result is out of the question. “To abandon this area now,” the President said, “would significantly hamper our ability to keep the pressure on Al Qaeda and create an unacceptable risk of additional attacks on our homeland and our allies.” The consequences could also include a second Taliban emirate, a long, bloody civil war, and a sharp, destabilizing increase in Islamist violence, not only in Pakistan but also in India and elsewhere. The status quo? To “muddle through and permit a slow deterioration,” the President said, “would ultimately prove more costly and prolong our stay in Afghanistan, because we would never be able to generate the conditions needed to train Afghan security forces and give them the space to take over.” Or a full-scale counter-insurgency war—in the President’s words, a “dramatic and open-ended escalation of our war effort, one that would commit us to a nation-building project of up to a decade”? That, too, must be rejected, “because it sets goals that are beyond what can be achieved at a reasonable cost and what we need to achieve to secure our interests.” Such a war—such a project—would be hugely out of proportion to whatever marginal security gains it might yield. And it wouldn’t just be beyond “a reasonable cost.” It would be beyond our political, institutional, and material capacity, and therefore impossible.
A dismal process of elimination has left the President to design a strategy that he believes is the only one that offers a chance, in his words, “to bring this war to a successful conclusion.” Or, at least, a bearable one. Deliver a hard punch to the Taliban, break its momentum, and welcome its defectors; throw a bucket of cold water on the hapless and corrupt central government; carve out space and time for projects of civilian betterment and the development of Afghan forces that are capable of maintaining some semblance of security; forge “an effective partnership with Pakistan”—to list the elements of Obama’s strategy is to recognize its difficulty. It is full of internal tensions, most prominently between the buildup of troops and the eighteen-month timeline for beginning their withdrawal. (To the extent that the troop surge weakens the enemy while the timeline focusses minds in Kabul and Islamabad, however, that tension could be a creative one.) The plan does not, of course, guarantee success. The best that can be claimed for it is that it does not guarantee failure, as, in one form or another, the alternatives almost certainly do.
At West Point in June of 2002, George W. Bush proclaimed to the graduating cadets, “Our war on terror is only begun, but in Afghanistan it has begun well.” In truth, it had not begun so well. Six months earlier, the first Taliban emirate had indeed been routed from power. But, at the same time, the perpetrator of 9/11 had been allowed to escape from his mountain hideout; the American forces that could have captured him were held back by an Administration already planning its misguided invasion of Iraq. The evidence, a Senate Foreign Relations Committee report concluded last week, “removes any lingering doubts and makes it clear that Osama bin Laden was within our grasp at Tora Bora.”
That was the speech in which the then President—no doubt with Iraq in mind, though he made no mention of that country—expanded what was already being called the Bush Doctrine to embrace the notion of preventive war. Obama, in the aftermath of his West Point speech, was widely condemned—and grudgingly praised—for allegedly adopting “what sounds like the Bush Doctrine” (Rachel Maddow) and “a rehash of the Bush Doctrine” (Mary Matalin). Not so. Whatever the Afghanistan war’s origins (and they were retributive, not preventive, except in the sense that every war, and every act of statecraft, is aimed at “preventing” something), this is not a preventive war. It is an actually existing war, and Obama’s purpose is clearly to bring it to a non-disastrous end.
The botched war in Afghanistan, like the economic crisis and the broken health-care system, is an inheritance from which Obama is trying to extricate the country. In each case, the institutional, historical, and political constraints under which a President must operate mean that the solutions—or, if there are no solutions, the ameliorations—are doomed to be nearly as messy as the problems. If there is no Obama Doctrine, there is an Obama approach—undergirded by humane values but also by a respect for reality. The most telling signpost in Obama’s speech may have been neither his call for more troops nor his timeline for removing them but his use of a quotation from another President who inherited a seemingly intractable war: “Each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs.” That was Dwight D. Eisenhower, in one of the homelier passages from his canonical farewell address, delivered the year Barack Obama was born. President Eisenhower’s point was that a nation’s security is all of a piece—that military actions do not inhabit a separate universe but must be weighed on the same scale, and be subject to the same judgments, as a nation’s other vital concerns. That seems to be President Obama’s point as well.