As commander-in-chief, Barack Obama doesn’t just blow an uncertain trumpet — he barely blows a trumpet at all. Judging from his speeches, America gets into wars solely so it can “end them responsibly.”
Gen. Douglas MacArthur was wrong. There is a substitute for victory. It’s “ending wars responsibly.” In his Afghanistan-drawdown speech, President Obama struck his version of a Churchillian note when he warned, “This is the beginning — but not the end — of our effort to wind down this war.”
A cruder, more simplistic president from a bygone era might have couched the war in terms of our effort to win. For Obama, the paramount goal is ending, not winning. But ending “responsibly” — which in the case of Afghanistan may mean ending with enough of an interval of relative stability that our exit doesn’t seem an obvious defeat.
Obama’s antiwar supporters trotted out the old chestnut from the late Sen. George Aiken during Vietnam and advised that in Afghanistan he should “declare victory and get out.” As it happens, their counsel was much too hawkish: Obama would never allow himself to declare victory, even insincerely and opportunistically.
There’s a chance our military can stretch and improvise to keep the enemy at bay even as 10,000 troops come out by the end of the year and the 20,000 remaining surge troops leave by next summer. But Obama has put the gains won at the cost of their blood, sweat, and tears at greater risk for no reason other than his own ambiguity about their mission.
Say this for the president: He has remained true to the spirit of his deeply conflicted 2009 speech announcing the Afghan surge. In it, our fearlessly ambivalent commander-in-chief portrayed the surge as a temporary detour on the way to “a responsible transition of our forces out of Afghanistan.”
He told West Point cadets in that speech that “America will have to show our strength in the way we end wars and prevent conflict — not just how we wage wars.” Of course, ending wars is only superficially in our power. We are now on a faster path to ending our part in the Afghan War, but the Taliban, the Haqqani network, al-Qaeda, and other extremists have no intention of ending theirs. They lack the sophistication to realize that winning is “out” and ending is “in.”
These groups also lack keen reelection-minded political advisers. The end of the surge will — predictably — come right before the November 2012 elections. Obama isn’t even willing to see through the entire 2012 fighting season, which stretches into the fall, but wants all the surge forces out by the summer. No military strategist would ever endorse that timetable. General Axelrod trumps General Petraeus. Chairman Plouffe outranks Chairman Mullen.
The point Obama’s speech built toward was his insipid exhortation, “America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home.” This sentiment — as clichéd as it is jejune — represents Obama’s deepest strategic impulse. It’s George McGovern’s call to “come home, America,” wedded to subsidies for windmills and electric cars. It is shot through with declinism about our role in the world and fantastical beliefs about the powers of industrial policy at home.
Obama cited the cost of the war and the need to “live within our means.” Only when it comes to the Afghan War is the president interested in fiscal retrenchment. Whatever the incremental savings of a swifter drawdown of the surge than our military commanders recommend, it will be a blip compared with our $1.4 trillion annual deficit. The path to national solvency does not run through the Hindu Kush.
There’s no denying that the Afghan War has been long, frustrating, and costly in blood and treasure. Ending it without success, though, will leave a dangerous caldron of disorder in the region. America can always come home; she can never again be sure her enemies won’t follow.