Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Thoughts on Obama's Afghanistan speech at West Point

I'll be adding to this throughout the night. Stay tuned for updates.


As expected, it was an admirable speech (transcript), regardless of the questionable content, but, then, we've come to expect such lofty rhetorical flights from Obama. The tone was serious, which it had to be, and, on the whole, the president made his case effectively, I thought.

But do we buy the case? I do not.

In making the case for war, Obama sounded at times a lot like Bush. Yes, there was good reason (a solid, defensible rationale) to go to war, and the war, early on, may have been legitimate (in other words, the U.S. was justified in going to war to confront an enemy that had attacked it), but the war now is not the war then. Back then, it was about removing the Taliban from power and denying al Qaeda a safe haven in Afghanistan. That was accomplished, quickly, even if Karzai's government doesn't really run the country in any meaningful way. It is not clear what it is about now. Rebuilding the country? Propping up the government? Holding back the Taliban?

In the absence of a clear purpose, or rationale, for the continuing conduct of the war, there is an astonishing lack of legitimacy for the war. And even if the rationale for the war is to hold back the Taliban, as well as to maintain some semblance of stability in neighbouring Pakistan (which may descend into chaos even if the U.S. remains engaged militarily in Afghanistan), it isn't clear that continuing to wage the war, let alone escalating it, is worth the cost, both monetary and human.

I was following Andrew Sullivan's live-blogging throughout the speech. These are some of his better points, with my comments:

-- "The argument for staying on offense is pure Giuliani. If you thought you were voting for a peacenik last year, you weren't paying attention, were you? The notion that we do not face a popular insurgency as in Vietnam is also unconvincing."

I wouldn't call Obama a warmonger, but his resemblance to Bush, Cheney, and Giuliani, among others, is troubling. At least he's trying to be responsible.

-- "A reprise of liberal internationalism, and a Niebuhrian mix of military realism and global hope. 'We do not seek to occupy other nations.' And yet we do. And we will."

This is where liberal internationalism resembles neoconservatism. Obama is firmly committed to the pursuit of American hegemony, if less aggressively. I will continue to support him, given the alternatives, but there will be no radical transformation of American foreign policy during his presidency. It will be more of the same, just different, which means that the overall decline of the American Empire will continue. What has gotten the U.S. in trouble will continue to be the focus of foreign policy going forward. This isn't change I can believe in. Not even close. Better than Bush, of course, but that's flimsy praise.

Okay, more later.


More Sullivan:

I confess I do not feel those highest hopes. I do not share his confidence in American military and civilian power to turn the roiling region of Afghanistan and Pakistan into something less threatening. I see no reason after the last eight years to see how this can happen, even with these new resources. But if you rule out withdrawal right away, then this seems to me to be about the smartest strategy ahead. But I see absolutely no reason to believe that it will mean withdrawal of any significant amount in Obama's first term.

Yeah, I guess so -- if you rule out withdrawal right away.

But why rule it out? Because the problem is, this isn't going to work. Afghanistan isn't Iraq. It doesn't have a history of modern governance, nor of the sort of infrastructure one finds in modern societies, nor a reservoir of human resources, including of the intellectual kind. It isn't possible to rebuild the country sufficiently within the limited timeframe Obama envisions. He wants to "[start] to withdraw forces from the country in July 2011," but, honestly, what will have been accomplished by then? Will the government be stable? Will it actually be governing? Will it be providing services? Will the Taliban have successfully been beaten back? And what about Pakistan? Will it be any more stable then than it is now? Even if the Afghan government and security forces are more secure, and more effective, than they are now, will conditions on the ground be such that the U.S. can actually leave? Isn't it far more likely that Afghanistan a few years from now won't be all that much better than it is now, and that lives and money will have been wasted?


I can't believe I'm saying this, but Thomas Friedman made a great point on The Daily Show tonight. The key to getting from the Afghanistan of today to a relatively stable, peaceful Afghanistan is the Afghan government. The problem is that the government is a kleptocracy and is in no position to do what is needed to be done. I paraphrase, but that was the gist of it.


Again, an additional 30,000 troops won't be nearly enough. That's not to say more troops should be sent, of course, because it would require a massive troop increase to stabilize Afghanistan, and there is neither the desire nor the capacity for such an increase. Even if the new troops are focused on Kabul and specific parts of the country that need to be pacified through counterinsurgency, and even if there is an exit plan, the chance of success, even limited success, is small.

Here's how Fred Kaplan put it the other day:

So here's what it comes down to: This option might be a good idea if it worked, but the chances of its working are slim (though not zero); all the other options seem to be bad ideas, but they might cost less money and get fewer American soldiers killed (though not necessarily).

And here's how I put it, responding to Kaplan:

No, one doesn't envy Obama, who inherited this war, a war that was mismanaged and then neglected entirely, or so it seemed, by his predecessor. Whatever he chooses to do won't be good enough and will be criticized by armchair presidents around the world, including by his critics on both the left and the right. My own views place me to his left, but I remain realistic enough to know that the war can't, and won't, end anytime soon. It's now a matter of finding a way out while not giving up and pulling out until sufficient progress has been made or until some sustainable level of peace, security, and stability has been achieved in divided and war-torn country with no history of peace, security, or stability.

Obama is clearly looking ahead to the way out, but I'm pessimistic that sufficient progress will be made and that some sustainable level of peace, security, and stability will be achieved. I understand that, assuming that withdrawal was off the table, this is probably the least bad option that was available to Obama, not least for political reasons. But so what? Does that mean it's worth the risk? The right will continue to hammer him, the left will distance itself further from him, and it's not clear that those in the middle will credit him with taking the middle path, especially as it becomes clearer that that path may well lead to more of the same with even more casualties.

Obama is basically taking one last shot at "winning," broadly defined, the Afghan War. I'm just not sure it's a shot he should be taking.

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