I didn’t see the president’s speech last night, deliberately eschewing the dramatics, and trying to resist the siren song effect his speeches usually have on me. I admit I am a sucker for a good speech, well delivered, and Obama could charm the bloomers off a middle aged virgin spinster with his delivery at times.
So I chose to read the speech, and try and judge it on it’s merits. It seemed a good, workmanlike job by the president; sober, serious, keeping the mickey mouse, soaring rhetorical flourishes to a minimum. He seemed to be saying, “I realize it’s my war now and this is what I intend to do.”
Did it have to take so long to come to this decision? Excuse the digression but the process of presidential decision making varies from man to man. Some find solitude the most efficacious way to reach an important decision. Nixon comes to mind as a president who practiced a nearly go it alone approach, seeking counsel from a very few close advisors and then retiring to dwell on his options.
Other presidents are more intuitive in their decision making. Reagan fits this category. He would seek a consensus but if he felt it was the wrong choice, he had very little hesitation in going against his advisors if he felt strongly enough about something. I think Clinton also could be placed in this camp, although he was much more calculating a politician than Reagan.
Then there are the consensus builders like Obama. George Bush #41 and Jimmy Carter are recent examples there. All three men seemed to revel in listening to every possible permutation of policy and then guiding their advisors toward a decision they could all support.
Is any one decision making process superior to another? I don’t see how that could be possible. Each man who occupies the Oval Office is different, each has their own style and temperament. The process is never as important as the result.
In this case, the result was the best that could probably be hoped for. And his justification for the new policy is spot on:
So, no, I do not make this decision lightly. I make this decision because I am convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the epicenter of violent extremism practiced by al-Qaeda. It is from here that we were attacked on 9/11, and it is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak.
This is no idle danger, no hypothetical threat. In the last few months alone, we have apprehended extremists within our borders who were sent here from the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan to commit new acts of terror. And this danger will only grow if the region slides backwards and al-Qaeda can operate with impunity.
We must keep the pressure on al-Qaeda. And to do that, we must increase the stability and capacity of our partners in the region.
I certainly didn’t envy Obama in making this decision. What a God-awful mess of a country Afghanistan is. It’s barely a country at all in the nation-state sense of the word. What percentage of the population actually feels any loyalty at all to the concept of “nation?” I would bet it’s under 50%. No appeals to the people based on doing what’s right for the “nation” will work. The country will be pacified by brute force and small, local victories won by our nation building forces. The hope appears to be to bring peace and security via a new counterinsurgency strategy to large enough areas where loyalty to Kabul can then be cemented through rebuilding and creating infrastructure.
It’s all we’ve got and the president has made the only choice consistent with trying our best to achieve a good outcome. Another good choice was to get the troops overseas as fast as possible. Previously, there was talk of extending the deployment of the extra troops for a year or more. Getting them in country by May seems to me to be the right thing to do.
Is anyone surprised at the president’s July, 2011 deadline for getting out? I am surprised he is giving our efforts that long. If one were to look at the military and civilian situation separately, it’s clear that the military aspect of the campaign - as hard as it is going to be - will be a cakewalk compared to trying to fix what’s wrong with government in Afghanistan and have in place a governing body that can handle most of its own security by summer of 2011. All the excellent work that will be accomplished on the military side will count for nothing unless something positive can be achieved on the civilian front.
I don’t think the president and his advisors think Karzai is the right man for the job. They have been disdainful of his efforts to eradicate corruption, bring the warlords to heel, and engender confidence in the Afghan people. Their doubts are well founded, but the president seemed to accept the fact that at the moment, Karzai is “it,” and we have to work with him:
President Karzai’s inauguration speech sent the right message about moving in a new direction. And going forward, we will be clear about what we expect from those who receive our assistance.
We’ll support Afghan ministries, governors, and local leaders that combat corruption and deliver for the people. We expect those who are ineffective or corrupt to be held accountable. And we will also focus our assistance in areas such as agriculture that can make an immediate impact in the lives of the Afghan people.
The president mentioned earlier that, “The days of providing a blank check are over…” to the Afghan government. This says to me that there will be some kind of accountability structure - perhaps even metrics that the Afghan government will have to achieve - if our continued help is going to be forthcoming. It also could mean that we will be taking more of the initiative in these programs, cutting the Afghan middlemen out of the process. Since doling out our aid in the past has been an open invitation to corruption, this would seem to be a step in the right direction.
Not receiving the notice it deserves are the presidents words about Pakistan:
In the past, we too often defined our relationship with Pakistan narrowly. And those days are over.
Moving forward, we are committed to a partnership with Pakistan that is built on a foundation of mutual interest, mutual respect, and mutual trust. We will strengthen Pakistan’s capacity to target those groups that threaten our countries and have made it clear that we cannot tolerate a safe haven for terrorists whose location is known and whose intentions are clear.
America is also providing substantial resources to support Pakistan’s democracy and development. We are the largest international supporter for those Pakistanis displaced by the fighting. And going forward, the Pakistan people must know: America will remain a strong supporter of Pakistan’s security and prosperity long after the guns have fallen silent so that the great potential of its people can be unleashed.
We are aiding Pakistan to the tune of $7.5 billion over the next 5 years. That money will be much more carefully watched than the $5 billion we gave Musharraf in 2002. I doubt much, if any of this recent aid package will be used to kill Indians.
But the president’s emphasis on not separating the AfPak situation is exactly right. Whether we can do anything about cross border infiltration, ISI assistance to the Taliban, or assist the Pakistanis in their war against the extremists is unknown at this time. I would not be surprised if in the near future, our military receives private assurances from the Pakistani government that they can engage in “hot pursuits” of the Taliban across the border. As pressure increases on the Taliban in Afghanistan, this will become vital to avoid a repeat of Tora Bora where so many enemies escaped.
In summary, the plan appears to be the best available. I suppose we could have sent more troops but for what purpose? One could argue that the president is doing the absolute minimum to achieve success, leaving little room for error. I would agree with that but add the caveat that it’s his war now and he is prosecuting it according to his lights. He is not running away. He is seeking a good outcome to a situation where options are limited, and success may be elusive.
His weakest moment was here:
Finally, there are those who oppose identifying a timeframe for our transition to Afghan responsibility. Indeed, some call for a more dramatic and open-ended escalation of our war effort, one that would commit us to a nation-building project of up to a decade. I reject this course 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.
Furthermore, the absence of a timeframe for transition would deny us any sense of urgency in working with the Afghan government. It must be clear that Afghans will have to take responsibility for their security and that America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan.
As president, I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests. And I must weigh all of the challenges that our nation faces. I don’t have the luxury of committing to just one.
Setting a timeframe for withdrawal is a wholly political decision and trying to justify it by folding it within our interests and responsibilities doesn’t cut it. A good argument can indeed be made that we should pour in the troops and stay a decade or longer to pacify the country. The president has rejected the argument but that doesn’t make it any less viable a strategy.
The president is calculating that he cannot hold his base of support or the support of many Americans if the war continues through the election of 2012. It may even lead to his defeat. Thus, getting rid of the problem prior to the election season is probably good politics. We shall see if it is good strategy.
In summary, the president has successfully split the difference with his advisors and has come up with the best option for the near term in Afghanistan that could be achieved without ripping his administration and party apart. Overall, it appears to me to have a decent chance to succeed in fulfilling his limited goals.
Beyond that, there is now the matter of supporting the president and our military in their efforts. I would like to associate myself with the remarks of Jules Crittenden on this:
And that’s pretty much what we all have to do now. Salute and say yes sir, and make a go of it. Because he is the president, he is sending more soldiers to war, and it was his decision about how, when and for how long that will be. A few actually do have to salute and go do it. The best thing the rest of us can do is encourage him, the Congress and everyone involved to make it work, and make it count. Because even if the president didn’t say so, the goal isn’t getting out. There is no acceptable outcome short of success. Getting out comes after that.
I suspect that most responsible conservatives will have this attitude. There will no doubt be groaning about the timeframe. There will be criticism about the number of troops. And the digs about Obama “dithering” - something I wondered about and criticized the president for as well - will be present in most analysis of the speech on the right.
But in the end, I suspect most of us will salute and say, “yes sir.” Barack Obama is our president. He is the only one we’ve got. He has made an important decision about sending our sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, friends and neighbors to war. He has made it plain he expects success and has come up with a plan that appears to give that prospect at least a fighting chance.
Last year, I was heavily criticized by some of my righty friends for writing this:
But when push comes to shove and crisis erupts somewhere in the world involving American interests - and no president in recent memory has escaped such a challenge - I plan on backing my president’s play. I may give voice to skepticism about the path he chooses. This is our right and duty.
But I will not wish that he fail nor will I work to see that he does. The fact that I even have to mention this shows how foreign an idea this is to both the right and the left. The unbalanced hatred on the right directed against President Clinton was followed up by the even kookier and dangerous rage by the left against Bush. Perhaps its time for all of us to grow up a little and start acting like adults where the survival of our republic depends on the two sides not trying to eye-gouge their way to dominance.
President Obama has embraced the War in Afghanistan and made it his own cause. So, is it patriotic only to support a Republican president who goes to war? We’ll soon find out.