Politics & Policy

Is This Victory We Can Believe In?

To save his domestic agenda, the president has settled for managed failure abroad.

After three months of delay, President Obama has finally responded to the troop request from his military commander in Afghanistan. But the increase in forces comes with a poison pill. Mr. Obama’s hesitation created the space necessary for liberals in his own administration to trump his national-security team and lay the groundwork for an eventual withdrawal from Afghanistan. He let politics hijack national security. The resulting policy is one of managed failure.

It is true that General McChrystal will eventually receive more troops for the mission Mr. Obama ordered him to execute last March. But the White House’s message has focused much more on “offramps” and the notion that the U.S. must ultimately withdraw completely from the battlespace. Given that it may take six months for the additional forces to reach Afghanistan, and that the dominant narrative is already withdrawal, there is really no commitment at all to winning what Obama called the “war of necessity” just this summer.

Notably, the shift in the administration’s approach did not emerge until after a string of political setbacks for the White House, starting with the failure of health-care legislation to pass in August. It was at that point the once-popular president lost the Right entirely, along with many independents, in his attempts to enact a far-reaching domestic agenda. Subsequently, the White House dispensed with attempts to lure centrist support for its causes. It sought instead to rely on the thin majority of liberals in Congress to achieve its goals — the same group of Congressmen who instinctively disdain American power. Issues driving the discourse on Afghanistan since then were almost all tied to domestic politics, rather than strategy or facts.

Thus word trickled out of the White House that Vice President Biden and the political team lead by David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel was becoming more influential in Afghanistan-related policy. Their role was on prominent display during the amateurish attempts to undermine Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who — despite a flawed election — was always certain to be Afghanistan’s chief executive, and America’s partner in the country.

Some have applauded that Mr. Obama has finally made a decision, and that the troop number authorized is close to what General McChrystal requested. But the number is less consequential since it is accompanied by a signal of withdrawal. Furthermore, the additional troop strength is overstated — considering the time it will take to deploy them, and the inclusion of estimates of troops from European governments that so far have offered little additional resources for the fight. Mr. Obama has also betrayed a new and troubling penchant for micromanaging military commanders in the field. The commander-in-chief’s job is to focus on strategy, ensure that Congress and the American people understand and support the war, and see to it that commanders have what they need for the mission he assigns. Mr. Obama has performed none of these essential tasks.

Furthermore, the fact that the president agonized at length over this request has been lost neither on our adversaries nor our allies. While a small number of liberal pundits inside the Beltway may still believe the delay reflected deep thinking and analytical rigor, most people saw it as hesitation, plain and simple. Britain’s defense minister said as much last week. The conclusions being drawn among the combatants in Afghanistan and in the salons of Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang, and Tehran will be less charitable still. Allies in dangerous parts of the world will increasingly conclude they have to cut deals with the bad actors they confront, given that American power is receding.

Rather than using an escalation to lay the groundwork for eventual withdrawal, Mr. Obama should explain to Congress and the American people that we are likely to need long-term access to the battlespace in Central Asia. Indeed, for all of the president’s cheap shots at his predecessor’s management of the Afghan theater, the fact remains that no one has been able to use Afghanistan to mount an attack on the U.S. since September 11, 2001. While improving security conditions in Afghanistan is important, maintaining a U.S. presence there — that at a minimum keeps our adversaries off balance — is critical. In July 2008, candidate Obama said “If another attack on our homeland comes, it will likely come from the same region where 9/11 was planned.” President Obama seems to have forgotten this, given his talk of exiting.

Now is a time for the loyal opposition in Congress to articulate clear alternatives to Mr. Obama’s foreign policy. Rather that providing deference to the president for finally arriving at a decision on this matter, they should work to define the mission we ought to have in Afghanistan and globally — the mission to keep America safe and ultimately ablate Islamist jihadism itself. The threats we face will not go away through a managed drawdown in Central Asia, nor are they limited only to Al Qaeda or the Taliban. Republicans need to articulate a vision for containing the threats we face — and oppose Mr. Obama’s further curtailment of American power.

Stephen Yates was deputy national security adviser to the vice president from 2001 to 2005. Christian Whiton was a State Department senior adviser from 2003 to 2009 and served as deputy special envoy. They are respectively the president and principal of D.C. Asia Advisory LLC.


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