Is he lying to us? When President Obama talks about withdrawing US forces from Afghanistan in July, 2011, does he mean it? Or is that a clever ruse in order to blunt criticism from the left, and from congressional Democrats, of his decision to escalate the war?
Personally, I’m willing to take him at his word. Why? Because Obama is doing in Afghanistan exactly what he said he’d do during the campaign, after his election, and after taking office. And I don’t think he’s doing it primarily for political reasons, either. Having had lengthy discussions with many, perhaps most, of Obama’s advisers on Afghanistan and Pakistan over the past two years, it’s clear to me that those adivsers believe passionately that vital US interests are at stake in that conflict. It’s no surprise that they’ve convinced Obama, too.
That’s not to say that Obama, before last night’s speech, wasn’t under intense political pressure to jack up the war. The generals, especially David Petraeus, the Centcom commander, and Stanley McChrystal, the commander in Afghanistan, made no bones about what they wanted, and it was clear that Petraeus and McChrystal weren’t shy about making common cause with the Republicans and the neoconservatives. And plenty of hawkish Democrats, including the ever-reliable Representative Ike Skelton, felt the same way. It’s tempting to argue that Obama could have faced all of them down had he decided to draw down US forces, but that he lacked the political courage. After reviewing all of the evidence, I don’t agree that the president was acting out of a lack of courage. I think that his decision to surge US forces in Afghanistan reflects a mature, considered decision on his part to do what he thinks is the right thing. (Unfortunately, it’s wrong.)
Like many others, I hoped that those in the administration, such as Vice President Biden, who wanted to de-escalate the war, would prevail. That’s not to say that what Biden reportedly proposed, a limited focus on counterterrorism with a smaller US footprint, was the best option. (I’ve outlined, at some length, my own views on Afghanistan, including for The Nation, in a recent piece called “How to Get Out.” I don’t think Obama read it.) But at least what Biden allegedly argued is better than what Obama decided. Still, the point is, unless you’ve been blinded by the celebrity glare that has surrounded Obama since he burst onto the scene, there’s no excuse for being surprised at what he decided. He told us what he thinks many times, he told us what he’d do, and then he did it.