Obama Finally Facing Reality in Afghanistan

Obama Finally Facing Reality in Afghanistan

Maybe it was the spectacle of all those discredited neocons gathering in Washington to urge him to stay the course in Afghanistan. Or maybe it was the endless nagging from Vice President Biden.

But for whatever reason, President Obama is suddenly said to be rethinking his approach to that benighted country -- possibly even considering Biden's proposal to withdraw troops currently engaged in counter-insurgency and nation-building, and instead focus on counter-terrorism there and in Pakistan.

Should Obama actually change his mind about Afghanistan, our elite journalists -- obsessed as they are with how the game is played -- will almost inevitably characterize this as vacillation and declare it a sign of political weakness. But that really misses the point.

The most important thing to keep in mind here is that over the last several months, what's emerged when it comes to Afghan policy is a sort of consensus of the realists -- from across the political spectrum. The consensus: That our national interests in Afghanistan are pretty limited and that the harder we try to change things over there, the more resistance we face; that Afghanistan, after eight years of U.S. occupation, has become a Vietnam-like quagmire where escalation only leads to more escalation, not victory; and that what little we could possibly accomplish there is not worth more American blood.

Pretty much the only people left supporting a massive sustained military approach (no matter how cleverly retooled) are the neocons, the reflexive Obama supporters, and the military commanders charged with carrying it out. Otherwise, a wide swath of experts and politicians -- not to mention a significant majority of the American public -- have concluded that our interests are best served at this point by getting out and certainly not by sending more troops in.

If Obama does change his mind, that will indeed be newsworthy -- but not in a way that reflects poorly on his leadership. We should be more skeptical of a president who never changes his mind than of one who does on occasion, particularly when they're faced with new or overwhelming evidence. What I've particularly craved after eight years of Bush is a president with the ability to admit mistakes. It was an auspicious sign when, less than two weeks into his presidency, Obama publicly and forthrightly admitted he had "screwed up" in nominating two people with tax problems to key positions in his administration.
Since then I've been way more concerned about his inability to cop to subsequent screw-ups than I have been about indecisiveness. I've been particularly alarmed by his inability to express much remorse for the civilian casualties that have been the byproducts of his war. So let's be clear: Changing your mind when you've been wrong is a good thing, not a bad thing; it's a sign of strength, not of weakness.

The most troubling question an Obama change of mind would raise is why he advocated such a bombastic approach to Afghanistan in the first place, starting back when he was campaigning for office. What didn't he understand at the time? Was he getting bad advice? Or was it a purely political stratagem to insulate him from being attacked as a peacenik? If so, at what cost? And whose cost? And why did he actually up the rhetorical ante less than two months ago, telling the Veterans of Foreign Wars that this was a "war of necessity"? Yes, the recent Afghan elections, marked by widespread fraud, produced powerful evidence that there will be no strong, reliable central government in that country anytime in the foreseeable future. But was that really the inflection point? So if Obama changes course, we should well ask: What took him so long?

Another important thing that could happen here is that, by fully explaining his decision, Obama could go a long way toward restoring a balanced and rational sense of what it means to "support the troops." Former president George W. Bush and his political henchmen used that phrase as a bludgeon to beat Democrats into submission on any issue even vaguely related to national security -- even when it actually resulted in putting the troops in greater danger. Most notably, Bush insisted that once troops had been committed to Iraq, he bore the responsibility to make sure they had not died in vain -- and that anything short of victory would be a betrayal of those soldiers who had already made the ultimate sacrifice. Democrats were way too terrified to demand a pullout from Iraq, even when they controlled Congress, for fear of being accused of undercutting our brave fighting men and women.

But the fact is that our modern-age all-volunteer army -- and its do-or-die commanders -- simply can't be relied upon to decide what's best for themselves. They're just not the kind of people to whine, not to mention admit that they can't accomplish the tasks they've been charged with. Sometimes removing them from the field of battle is the best thing a commander in chief can do for the troops - and that's certainly the case if the alternative is to send even more to give their lives for a lost cause. "Do or die" is a glorious motto for warriors, but for their civilian leaders, it would be nice to have another alternative -- particularly when the "do" can't be done.

And one last thing to keep in mind is that Obama's Afghan plan has been missing something hugely important all along: an exit strategy. The plan itself has been vague and open-ended -- and there's been no accounting for what happens if things don't go according to plan. It took the administration until last week to give members of Congress a first look at its proposed "benchmarks" for success, and early reports were not encouraging. And the recent precedent with benchmarks is not good. The Bush administration grudgingly set ambiguous benchmarks for Iraq - then made a heads-I-win-tails-you-lose argument: To the extent that we were meeting them, that was a validation for our presence; to the extent that we weren't, that meant we needed to try even harder. For benchmarks to really mean something, they should serve as clearly identifiable indicators not simply of improvements here or there - but of whether our fundamental goals are in fact attainable. Because if our goals are not attainable, then obviously we should get out of there even faster.

Is Obama really changing his mind about his approach to Afghanistan? Does he have it in him? We don't yet know for certain. But if he does decide to face reality, that's something many of us should celebrate rather than criticize. Facing reality, no matter how ugly that reality is, is always better than the alternative.

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