Wednesday, December 2, 2009

When Playing to the Middle Pleases Nobody

Summary: Is Obama trying to appease both sides - or is the Afghanistan policy something other than a political decision?

In his address to the cadets of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and to the nation, President Obama outlined his new strategy for the war in Afghanistan.

Along with announcing the deployment of an additional 30,000 troops to that country (75% of what General Stanley McCrystal asked for) he explained how the war would not be an open-ended commitment - the U.S. would start withdrawing troops starting in 2011.

You can watch the full speech here:

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

But as NBC White House correspondent and political enthusiast Chuck Todd said this morning, “he did something which is pretty difficult nowadays, which is he came up with a policy and a plan and he gave a speech that made nobody happy.”

And for the most part it’s true. With a few exceptions, most columnists reacted with skepticism to downright disapproval in today’s papers.

Liberals, unhappy about another surge in what to them looks like another Vietnam, embody the feelings of a Huffington Post piece by Robert Borosage - Co-Director of the Campaign for America’s future - entitled “Imperial Blues”:

“Surely this is the way that great imperial powers decline. Their soldiers police the ends of the earth. There is always another enemy, always a threat -- sometimes imagined, often real -- that must be faced. And meanwhile, the productive economy declines, the rich live increasingly off investments abroad, the poor depend on public sustenance, the middle declines. No battle is so costly that it cannot be afforded; no battle so vital that the nation must be mobilized…

…slowly, the great power declines from the inside out. The wars are costly, running up national debts. Vital investments are put off. Schools decline. Sewers leak. For a long time, circuses distract from the spreading ruin. Other societies become productive centers, capturing the new industries. Some begin providing better education for their citizens, better support for their citizens. Their taxes, not drained by the cost of wars past and present, can be devoted to what we used to call "domestic improvements."…

…South Waziristan, Yemen, Somalia, Kosovo, the Taiwan straits, the North Korean border, the seven seas - we can do this. But the result is that we are continually at war. And the wars cost - in money, in lives, in attention. And inevitably, domestic priorities, as well as emerging security threats that have no military answers, get ignored. A rich country, Adam Smith wrote, has a lot of ruin in it. We seem intent on testing the limits of that proposition.”

Meanwhile, many conservatives - though supportive of the troop increase - were dismayed by the inclusion of an exit strategy. Conservative columnist Bill Kristol explained it as such in his Washington Post piece this morning, “A War President”:

“There were unfortunate aspects of Obama’s speech: the foolish eagerness to tell us he’s as eager as can be to get us out of Afghanistan as soon as he can; the laying down of a pseudo-deadline for beginning a process of transitioning our forces out in July 2011, combined with the claim that the pace and duration of the withdrawal is to be conditions-based – a typical example of Obama trying to be too cute by half; the silly harrumphing that “it will be clear to the Afghan government – and, more importantly, to the Afghan people – that they will ultimately be responsible for their own country,” as if we were there to help the Afghans become “responsible for their own country” again, as opposed to fighting for reasons of vital national interest.”

Even independents - who, according to polls, are evenly split on the Afghan War issue - had their own reservations. Thomas Friedman had this to say in his New York Times column, for a piece entitled “This I Believe”:

"What makes me wary about this plan is how many moving parts there are — Afghans, Pakistanis and NATO allies all have to behave forever differently for this to work…

…Iraq was about “the war on terrorism.” The Afghanistan invasion, for me, was about the “war on terrorists.” To me, it was about getting bin Laden and depriving Al Qaeda of a sanctuary — period. I never thought we could make Afghanistan into Norway — and even if we did, it would not resonate beyond its borders the way Iraq might.

To now make Afghanistan part of the “war on terrorism” — i.e., another nation-building project — is not crazy. It is just too expensive, when balanced against our needs for nation-building in America, so that we will have the strength to play our broader global role. Hence, my desire to keep our presence in Afghanistan limited. That is what I believe."

He also explained his opposition on the Daily Show last night:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Thomas Friedman
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealth Care Crisis

This isn’t the first time a president has tried to play to the middle - trying to appeal to the beliefs of as many Americans as possible - and come out nearly empty-handed. It’s not even the first time we’ve talked about President Obama doing so.

But in the end, this wasn’t a political decision: it was a foreign policy decision that any Commander-in-Chief would have to make. Perhaps that’s why his speech last night focused mostly on the strategic implications of this policy rather than the “usual appeals to American hopes and values” - as Politico’s Ben Smith puts it in his recent article.

Whether it will help him or hurt him politically will take a lot of time to see. More important in the coming weeks will be the slow-pace of Congressional action to fund an unpopular war before the 2010 elections. In the end, however, it seems pretty obvious to me that the new Afghanistan surge and exit strategy were not political moves - they were important decisions about our national security.

No comments: