Politics & Policy

Barack Obama, Conflicted Commander-in-Chief

His head says "win," his heart says "don't commit."

EDITOR’S NOTE: This column is available exclusively through King Features Syndicate. For permission to reprint or excerpt this copyrighted material, please contact: kfsreprint@hearstsc.com, or phone 800-708-7311, ext. 246.

Prepare for the advent of Barack Obama, neocon. On the Afghan War, he is throwing in with the lying, warmongering running dogs of neoconservatism by ordering a surge of some 30,000 troops.

Obama has to become a president of victory even though he hails from a party of defeat. The responsibilities of office separate him from a political base that only sounded stalwart on the Afghan War so long as it was a handy political tool with which to beat George W. Bush about the head and shoulders.

As soon as Obama assumed office, liberals bailed from the war with an almost comical desperation. They professed to have just discovered that Hamid Karzai is corrupt. That al-Qaeda is mostly across the border in Pakistan. That waging a war of counterinsurgency in one of the poorest, most illiterate countries in the world is a trying and complex endeavor.

They suffered the torment of visions of Obama as another LBJ, a dogged aggrandizer of the state undone by an unpopular foreign war. To borrow FDR’s terms, they didn’t want Obama to go from Dr. New Deal to Dr. Win-the-War, not with the multitrillion-dollar prizes of health-care reform and cap-and-trade within reach.

Obama knows how they feel. He announced his Afghan War strategy in March somewhat dutifully, a box checked on the more important road to a massive expansion of government. When Gen. Stanley McChrystal said he needed another 40,000 troops to implement that strategy, Obama blanched and retreated into a months-long exercise in high-profile, leak-prone agonizing.

Upon taking office amid World War I, French prime minister Georges Clemenceau declaimed: “My home policy: I wage war. My foreign policy: I wage war.” Obama took office not wanting to wage war or, if he could help it, manage a foreign policy. He rose to prominence as the peace candidate in a Democratic party that thrills to transforming America, not faraway countries of which we know nothing.

But it’s one thing to be a New York Times columnist and turn on the war after declaring it the central front in the War on Terror for years. It’s another to be president and eventually have to order the choppers to take off from the roof of the embassy in Kabul in the ensuing debacle.

In Obama’s long review, the fanciful suppositions of the war’s skeptics were systematically knocked down: No, the war couldn’t be waged from afar with drones and Special Forces; no, the Taliban couldn’t be considered a relatively harmless force; no, Afghanistan couldn’t slide into chaos without further destabilizing Pakistan.

The professionals, Hillary Clinton, Bob Gates, and Admiral Mullen, all lined up in favor of some form of the surge. Obama was left without any plausible reason to heed his deepest instincts.

Consequently, he finds himself in rough alignment with all the same hated people who conceived, executed, and supported the Iraq surge, and against the people who opposed it — and elected him. He’s about to embark on the rarest of things for him: a major, genuinely bipartisan initiative. Until now, the “post-partisan” Obama has avoided anything like NAFTA in Bill Clinton’s first year or No Child Left Behind in Bush’s.

The same Democrats who tried to end the Iraq War by defunding it hope to crimp the Afghan War by funding it. Willing to increase the debt on anything but fighting our enemies, House liberals agitate for a war surtax. Surely they can spare some of the proceeds from their promised half-a-trillion in cuts to Medicare and Medicaid for funding our troops?

If Obama weren’t burdened by his office, he might stand with his party’s newly minted Afghan doves and familiar purveyors of defeat. But he can’t. That makes him a conflicted commander-in-chief, ordering the surge, but loading it with conditions and “off ramps,” talking of resolve, but leaving room to maneuver. His head says “win,” his heart says “don’t commit.”

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