There he goes again, making non-commitments sound, well, like commitments. With a resounding maybe, President Obama’s Afghan speech named a date certain when troops not yet shipped out may start home. Unsurprisingly, Obama fudged the bigger issues, bypassing any timetable, benchmarks, end dates, exit strategy, even if there will be another surge – indeed, whether we’re talking 5-10 years and $500 billion. Did I miss clear assurances we’re closer to the finish than the kick-off?
However open-ended, the Obama-McChrystal surge fits a larger narrative: “The struggle against violent extremism will not be finished quickly,” said Obama, extending “well beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan,” and he cited Somalia and Yemen. Our “effort will involve disorderly regions and diffuse enemies.”
“Diffuse enemies” channels Cheneyism, presaging everlasting battles across time and geography. The context beyond Afghanistan is outlined by world-class military analyst, Tony Cordesman:
Obama must make it clear that the ideological, demographic, governance, economic, and other pressures that divide the Islamic world mean the world will face threats in many other nations that will endure indefinitely into the future . . . that the Iraq war is not over . . . we will still face both a domestic threat and a combination of insurgency and terrorism . . . from Morocco to the Philippines, and from Central Asia deep into Africa, regardless of how well we do in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Cordesman wants Obama to warn the Afghan surge could fail, complicating a complex dilemma, with keen trade-offs. The next day, top administration voices exploded the clearest Obama vow, making withdrawal as conditional as the desert wind. Topdogs Clinton, Gates, and Mullen invoked so much indeterminacy I thought of Don Rumsfeld’s evasion, “unknown unknowns.” Translation – not knowing what we don’t know that will matter.
Is re-election the first casualty of war?
For Afghanistan alone, surge objectives are anything but modest, even at odds with themselves: counterinsurgency, anti-terrorism, nation-building, troop withdrawal, strengthening Karzai, plus shielding Pakistani nukes. What if this convoluted, contradictory multi-tasking implodes, like all Afghan schemes, disrupted by baffling unknown unknowns?
No wonder nervous Obama Democrats, facing the triple whammy of military deadlocks, jobless recovery, and fudged promises, fret about re-election. Worry is justified as public support plummets whenever unpopular, endless wars bog down – for Truman (Korea), LBJ (Vietnam), and W., his double trouble driving approval from 70% to 30%. Yes, a nightmare scenario means charisma dies, reform fades, and Obama becomes the first, one-term minority president.
All is not so dire. After a week, Obama’s circumspect war strategy looks like smart politics, strengthening his re-election bid while demoralizing enemies, at least at home. Hasn’t he already won over essential “hearts and minds” belonging to war-loving Beltway Bashers who resonate when terrorists, even paper tigers, near weapons of mass destruction? By linking Taliban with nukes, Obama deletes all his anti-Iraq war chatter, falling obediently in line, for no president today dares empty the military punch bowl. Curiously, even the all-powerful commander-in-chief stands little chance against a unified, pro-war, Pentagon insurgency.
A summit-less geo-political war
What stands out from Obama’s speech, regurgitating 9/11 attacks, like W., or absolutist hyperbole about terrorist compounds, like W., is what was absent, like W.: commitment to negotiation, peace talks, or the inevitable, all-important regional summit. Officials apparently bypassed strategy sessions with top Afghanis. How do you fight insurgents, gliding like ghosts across borders, without engaging celebrated allies, let alone geo-political kingpins, namely Iran, India, Saudi Arabia, even Russia?
And yet, despite the Bush Doctrine, despite ongoing, pre-emptive, unilateral wars in Pakistan run by the CIA and Special Forces, Obama got a win. Despite 56% national opposition, Obama’s surge managed to neutralize rightwing stridency (no cowardly Muslim socialist assaults a cowardly terrorist Muslim nation) while pacifying the irate left (end in sight, need 18 months, promise, promise). Even harder than cutting and running from a failed war is turning quagmires to political advantage. Obama restaged a moribund impasse into a “good war” and re-dramatized a nasty, formidable enemy, all the while incarnating himself as legitimate “war president.”
Never too early to campaign
W. proved losing wars, even driving off the tracks, doesn’t disturb re-election plans if you fabricate a devastating enough PR menace and battlefields “over there.” Iraq showed a fiasco doesn’t have to win anything, just tie in with vaguely linkable missions (terrorists on the run, no new domestic attacks). By making Obama a war president, this escalation sets up years of promotional surge against GOP criticism as undermining security, indeed the American Way of Life. Unlike W., the smarter Obama corners foes, without impugning them as disloyal, treasonous or doubters whose side God is on.
In short, Obama is making lemonade out of a crate of nasty lemons, with political payoffs: 1) re-election boost; 2) targeted bi-partisanship; 3) display of fiscal frugality, even on security; 4) Congress and Pentagon on board; 5) aligning 9/11 terrorism with patriotic wars, thus triangulating Tea Party know-nothings and irate anti-war activists; and, finally, 6) restoring his Protean Majesty, balancing opposites, promising the world whatever they project, magically seeming all things to all people.
And the Timing, Exquisite
Year One ends, people count disappointments, and popularity sags. Yet pledging to start ending an unwinnable Bush war 18 months hence delivers double benefits, both for upcoming midterm and general elections. Promised withdrawal anoints Democrats next year as pro-security and pro-peace, while lucky 7/11 withdrawals, however modest they are, elevates the war president to the war and peace president who keeps his word. Neat prep for 2012.
Juvenile McCain-Palin campaigning mocked Obama as Moses come down from the mount, more the celebrity than man of destiny. This foolishness contradicted an ambitious, machine-friendly career politician ready to jump whenever higher office beckoned. In fact, only a masterful politician deflects today’s massive anti-war disgust after re-declaring an unpopular war, only to fly off and accept, with a fine speech, the planet’s most prestigious Peace Prize. If Obama pulls off this double bill with grace, honor is due.
Sure, mayhem looms behind every war-blasted Afghan rock, job growth will be anemic for years, and “health reform” looks tepid, increasingly like industry-friendly. But if no new disasters strike, Obama stands strong for re-election. His speech, whatever the policy contradictions and glaring omissions, modestly unifies a country shredded by Bush-Cheney’s unconscionable, divisive failures. However he sounds, even acts like Bush, Obama’s political command leaves predecessors in the dust.
That doesn’t mean his Rube Goldberg Afghan ploy will work, nor will he cease global wars of empire, only that nothing visible will sink him. My begrudging concessions don’t minimize the potential harm from a clever commander-in-chief, but let us acknowledge this president, facing an impossible choice, making the effort to lead most of the people most of the time. It ain’t like it used to be, but it will do.