Ritual trumphalism about America’s righteous mission in the closing sentences of his speech did not dispel the distinct impression during President Obama’s 33-minute address to cadets at West Point Tuesday night that we were listening to a man defeated by the challenge of justifying the dispatch of 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan.
Obama didn’t make the case and he pleased few. The liberals seethed as they heard him say that it is “in our vital national interest” to send 30,000 more troops to a mission they regard as doomed from the get go.
The cheers of the right at the news of the deployment died in their throats as they heard his next line, “After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.”
No mature American, seasoned in the ineradicable graft flourishing down the decades in almost every major American city, believes a pledge that corruption will be banished from Afghanistan in a year and a half, or that Karzai has any credibility as the wielder of the cleansing broom.
Each proposition of Obama’s rationale collapses at the first prod, starting with the comparison with the conclusion of America’s mission in Iraq. It’s taken as axiomatic in Washington that the “surge” in Iraq worked—that the extra troops demanded of President Bush by Gen. Petraeus turned the tide.
But what truly turned the tide in Iraq was the victory of the Shi’a in Baghdad and other major cities in their bloody civil war with the Sunni, the majority of whose fighters then saw they had no alternative but to forge an alliance with the hated occupiers and garland the tanks they had been trying to blow up only weeks earlier.
Prime Minister Maliki has at his disposal a large and seemingly loyal army and extensive trained militia and police force to sustain and guard the Iraqi state. The Afghan army is ragtag, barely trained, mostly illiterate and rife with desertion—disproportionately manned and commanded by Tajiks, whom the Pashtuns despise. The police depend for their living on bribes. As University of Michigan Professor Juan Cole points out, “the entire province of Qunduz north of the capital only has 800 police for a population of nearly a million. In contrast, the similarly-sized San Francisco has over 2,000 police officers and rather fewer armed militants.”
Core to Obama’s argument for intervention is the claim he made at West Point that the fundamental objective of destroying al-Qaida can only be achieved by destroying their hosts, the Taliban, and that this enterprise requires more troops. But there is evidence that across the recent months of infighting over America’s options, Obama and his White House national security advisers themselves had no confidence in this proposition.
In the struggle between the White House and Gen. McChrystal, the Pentagon and its Defense Secretary, Robert Gates (a holdover from the Bush years), Obama’s security adviser Gen. James Jones mooted to Bob Woodward of the Washington Post the question of why al-Qaida would want to move out of its present sanctuary in Pakistan to the uncertainties of Afghanistan.
McChrystal promptly struck back in his London speech to the Institute of Strategic Studies: “When the Taliban has success, that provides sanctuary from which al-Qaida can operate transnationally.”
Days later, the New York Times reported that “senior administration officials” were saying privately that Obama’s national security team was now “arguing that the Taliban in Afghanistan do not pose a direct threat to the United States.”
Detailing this semi-covert struggle, the Washington-based national security analyst Gareth Porter argues that Obama was boxed in by an alliance of Gates and Secretary of State Clinton plus McChrystal and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in “a textbook demonstration of how the national security apparatus ensures that its policy preference on issues of military force prevail in the White House.”
Though Porter makes a decent case, this may be giving a bit too much comfort to those disconsolate but ever hopeful liberals arguing that there really is a “good Obama” battling away against the darker forces. In a larger time-frame, if anyone boxed himself in on Afghanistan, it was Obama who spent a lot of the campaign last year seeking to deflect McCain’s charges that he was a quitter on Iraq, by proclaiming that America’s true battlefield lay in Afghanistan.
There were other unusual down-key notes in the speech. Obama is probably the first president of the United States to declare flatly that “we can’t simply afford to ignore the price of these wars. . . . That’s why our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended: because the nation that I’m most interested in building is our own.”
Contrast that to the budgetary bravado of President Kennedy proclaiming in his inaugural address in 1961 that “we shall pay any price, bear any burden . . . in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
In the wake of the speech, the Democrats were glum, well aware that the war is relatively unpopular and they will be saddled with it through the 2010 midterm elections and that Obama will unhesitatingly turn to Republicans in Congress to get the necessary vote for the money to finance the widening war. From the left came pledges to revive the antiwar movement, dormant these past two years.
The American political landscape doesn’t offer too much comfort to Obama. On Wednesday came tidings of a right-left alliance in Congress, challenging the reappointment of Ben Bernanke for a second term as chairman of the Federal Reserve, a slap in the face not only for Bernanke but for Obama.
In demanding a hold on Bernanke’s reappointment, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont said, “The American people overwhelmingly voted last year for a change in our national priorities to put the interests of ordinary people ahead of the greed of Wall Street and the wealthy few. What the American people did not bargain for was another four years for one of the key architects of the Bush economy.”
The president could scarcely exult publicly at one piece of good news, since it comes at the expense of the lives of four police officers in Tacoma, Wash., shot dead by Maurice Clemmons, an apparently mad black man who had a very lengthy prison sentence commuted nine years ago by Mike Huckabee when the latter was governor of Arkansas.
Huckabee’s pardons were estimable, but the prospects of him winning the Republican nomination in 2012 have now shriveled, sparing Obama a witty and resourceful opponent. Obama is no doubt more comfortable with the thought that his opponent might conceivably be Sarah Palin.
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