The Campaign Spot

Obama’s Domestic-Agenda Ambitions Preclude Any Afghan Troop Surge

One of the reasons I formulated the “all statements from Barack Obama come with an expiration date” mantra was to illustrate that Obama’s broken promises are distinct from lies. I think that in many cases, he really means what he says, at least at the moment he says it; it’s just that with time, the cost of keeping that promise gets higher, and the benefits look smaller, and he changes his mind. And it’s not that Obama intends to keep some promises and not others; it’s that everything he says is negotiable, depending on what tomorrow brings.

We’re on the verge of the biggest expiration date yet, in which he suddenly goes from Afghanistan being ”a war of necessity” to a sense that Gen. McChrystal is overhyping what is needed to win the fight, and that most of our goals can be achieved using Predator drones.

Last year, Obama’s main talking point on Afghanistan was that “we took our eye off the ball.” Winning what he called the central front in the war on terror – not Iraq, he insisted – was actually relatively easy, but Bush had loused it up. All America needed was for Obama to get in there and put his eye on the ball, and the situation would improve. He, and many other Democrats, insisted the primary reason that the fight against the Taliban wasn’t going as well as we hoped was because resources had been diverted to Iraq.

And now Obama is learning what some of us suspected all along: Afghanistan is a tough fight whether or not the U.S. has a lot of troops in Iraq. It turns out the primary challenges aren’t diverted resources but terrain, the sympathies of the Afghans, the opaque loyalties of a tribal society, and what’s going on in Pakistan. And now it seems that talk of “keeping the eye on the ball” is best left on the Little League field.

So why would Obama, after appointing Gen. Stanley McChrystal, suddenly have doubts about following the strategy endorsed by the man he wanted in charge?

Because McChrystal offered a vision that was potentially terrifying – a lot more troops, a tougher, more aggressive fight, and more flag-draped coffins returning home. Democrats who are already skeptical about the value of troops in Afghanistan would get more vocal. The antiwar movement that harassed George W. Bush for seven (not five) years would turn their attacks on him. The cries that Obama had turned into his predecessor would get louder.

You cannot be the hawkish leader of a dovish party. Tony Blair’s effectiveness as prime minister of the United Kingdom steadily deteriorated as the British public turned against the war by large margins. He was distrusted, hated, criticized, and effectively politically neutered.

Barack Obama has a big, far-reaching domestic agenda that is already jeopardized by divisions in the Democratic ranks, the ominous outlook for Obama’s party in 2010, and rapidly shifting public opinion.

I will be fantastically surprised if Obama backs the McChrystal plan 100 percent. But I suspect that Barack Obama doesn’t think he was elected to be a war president, and all of the evidence points that way, including the sudden language of “man-made disasters” and “overseas contingency operations.” Obama aims to end the war on terror, not win it. As he said in his discussion of Iran’s nuclear program, “I’m not interested in victory.”

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