First things first, this NY Times piece is excellent. Its message: The administration’s Afghanistan announcement last week arose from a lengthy, intensely thorough process of debate at the highest levels of government in which no participant’s wishes seem to have been completely fulfilled. The end product is, in short, what we’d expected: a compromise.
This was an unenviable decision for Obama to make; a classic case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t. There would never be a ‘right’ answer — indeed part of the answer would have to be that victory in its purest form might never be achieved. The route he took — of deploying 30,000 additional troops in the next six months, with the aim of withdrawing them from mid-2011 — is close to what General McChrystal is thought to have wanted in terms of troop numbers, but speeded up quite dramatically. This makes it a bit of a gamble. The bet is that a medium number of new troops can be effective almost immediately, and that power can start to be handed over to a viable Afghan government and army soon after. It’s fast in, fast out. Strategically, that’s pushing the envelope somewhat. It’s high risk.
Politically, the problem is great. Obama’s policy puts him at odds with both the left and the right: hardened liberals don’t like escalation; many Republicans wanted more troops. And yet the new policy doesn’t sit too well with much of the moderate middle. Obama now owns this war in a new and powerful sense — the new strategy is his not Bush’s. He now has no alibi if the policy fails; more than that, he needs it to succeed to get the public back on his side. But this tells us something about the new President — on the big questions, political expedience isn’t as important to him as trying to get it right. Not the best way to win elections, but probably a good way to be President.
The first half of his speech at West Point was light on flourish, and that was right for the moment. It was more argumentative essay than stump speech. The second half, to my mind, was too ethereal. Obama does that stuff better than anybody, but we didn’t need it on that night. There is a danger, I think, when an appeal is made to American exceptionalism as justification for intervention — when the argument is framed in universalist, purely moralistic terms — that it looks and feels as if the brains have been switched off somewhere along the line. “We could think about costs and benefits, but it’s easier to just retreat to freedom vs. tyranny”. Framing the argument in that way does the policy a disservice. The process Obama followed was rational, it was realistic; from what we understand all options were weighed up and strategically this one was thought the best. That alone should have been the sales pitch — we’re now on the right track and here’s why. Frankly, we didn’t need all the guff about freedom — Americans have heard that one before and it’s not clear they’re buying it.
So the policy is risky strategically and politically. It’s not clear whether or not we’ve found a good answer to the question of Afghanistan. The President sold it well but could’ve done better. And — rightly or wrongly — what happens next will be a big factor when Obama runs for re-election in 2012.