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.
Which brings me to the 2011 issue.
It’s easy to be cynical about that date. It’s conditions-based, the administration says, meaning that the precise nature of the US drawdown in Afghanistan, how fast it might occur, and when it starts exactly are going to be based on many factors: the situation on the ground, the state of the insurgency, the strength of the Afghan army, the role of Pakistan, and many others. Still, for the first time — and it’s not nothing — the United States has set a sell-by date for its Afghan policy. Obama has declared that the US effort in Afghanistan must show clear signs of success by 2011, or else it’s time to pick up the ball and go home. At the same time, if by some miracle the success that the president says he seeks in Afghanistan is achieved by then, as unlikely as that seems, well, then it’s time to declare victory and go home, too. So write down that date: July, 2011, and let’s hold the president to it. By then, for certain, politics will be a major factor, since Obama will be facing reelection. (And, very possibly, running against General Petraeus.)
So Obama wasn’t lying to us in 2008, when he called the war in Afghanistan the “right war.” He wasn’t lying to us in March, 2009, when he sent the first reinforcements. And he wasn’t lying in August, 2009, when he said that the war in Afghanistan was, in his view, a vital national security concern. (Despite the fact that Al Qaeda is a shattered, mostly harmless group now and despite the fact that the Taliban, still supported by our ally, Pakistan, hasn’t shown any inclination to attack the United States.) If he wasn’t lying then, why should we be cynical about his July, 2011, date?
To be sure, July, 2011, is supposed to be the start date, not the end date, for withdrawing US forces. At the time, we’ll be well along toward withdrawing the remaining US forces in Iraq, too, scheduled to be cleared out by December, 2011. But I believe Obama when he says that he wants to end the war in Afghanistan, and I believe that ultimately he’d like to have virtually all US forces out of both Iraq and Afghanistan before the 2012 elections, so he can run for reelection as the president who ended both of the wars he inherited.
It’s easy to enumerate the obstacles. And Obama, who’s not exactly experienced in the politics and policy of south and central Asia — he’s a community organizer from Chicago, and a state legislator who didn’t even complete his only term in the US Senate, remember — may not understand all of the underlying difficulties. The success that he’d like to achieve is, very likely, not doable. But setting a schedule nineteen months down the road, in July, 2011, means that the president has plenty of time to organize a diplomatic and political strategy for the war that is aimed at enlisting Pakistan, India, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia and China to pitch in on a deal that would rebalance the Afghan government, bring in the alienated Pashtuns, talk to the Taliban, or most of it, and start getting out. Of course, there’s no reason he couldn’t start doing that now, while drawing down US forces right away, but that’s not what he’s doing.
It goes too far to say that the president has done what critics such as Senator Russ Feingold and Representative Jim McGovern have called for, which is to set a flexible timetable for a withdrawal. Both of them, and many others — including me — argue that the time for that is now, not a year and half after an expensive and bloody surge. But it is what it is,and we shouldn’t be surprised.
It’s utterly wrong to look at what Obama has decided and call him Bush. He’s not Bush. He, and his team, aren’t supporters of global, military hegemony by the United States, nor does Obama accept the neoconservative doctine of a global war against political Islam in all its forms, from Iran’s regime and the Taliban to Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the rest. Obama understands that it’s a multi-polar world, in which the United States is still the biggest player in the military and security arena. But he’s no progressive. As I argued in The Nation back in July, 2008:
Obama seems likely to preside over a restoration of the bipartisan consensus that governed foreign policy during the cold war and the 1990s, updated for a post-9/11 world. That conclusion arises from an in-depth examination of the Illinois senator’s views as well as dozens of interviews with foreign policy experts, including lengthy exchanges with the core group of Obama’s foreign policy team and other participants in his task forces on the military, Iraq and the Middle East. It’s also based on a careful review of speeches and position papers, Obama’s 2007 article in Foreign Affairs and a key chapter, “The World Beyond Our Borders,” in his book The Audacity of Hope. All this suggests there is a gap between Obama’s inspirational speeches and the actual policies he supports. “So far, what you’re seeing is rhetoric that we can make bold changes in our foreign policy,” says John Cavanagh, director of the Institute for Policy Studies. “But when he lays out specifics, it’s not as transformational as the rhetoric.” Will Marshall, director of the right-leaning Progressive Policy Institute of the Democratic Leadership Council, agrees. “On most of the details, he’s aligned with the general Democratic consensus,” Marshall says. Says Tom Hayden, the veteran activist and former California state senator, “At best, he will be a gradualist.”
Even as he pledges to end the war in Iraq, Obama promises to increase Pentagon spending, boost the size of the Army and Marines, bolster the Special Forces, expand intelligence agencies and maintain the hundreds of US military bases that dot the globe. He supports a muscular multilateralism that includes NATO expansion, and according to the Times of London, his advisers are pushing him to ask Defense Secretary Robert Gates to stay on in an Obama administration. Though he is against the idea of the United States imposing democracy abroad, Obama does propose a sweeping nation-building and democracy-promotion program, including strengthening the controversial National Endowment for Democracy and constructing a civil-military apparatus that would deploy to rescue and rebuild failed and failing states in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
So, no surprises. It’s foolish to believe that liberal Democrats in Congress can sway the president’s course in Afghanistan. They’ll be swamped by the emerging coalition between the GOP and hawkish and centrist Democrats, who will happily fund the war. As Katrina vanden Heuvel has written, the climb toward a new, more progressive US foreign policy is a steep one.