Dispatch August 2009

Be Like Bush

Finesse alone won't get Obama through the challenges ahead. He needs to become more like his predecessor.
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The word that best describes President Barack Obama is “finesse,” implying delicate skill, subtlety, and grace—all attributes that former President George W. Bush seemingly lacked. Obama is truly the great finesser: he has finessed his way through life. To exude this quality is to be the opposite of an ideologue – something that comes close to describing Bush. And being the opposite of Bush would seem a good thing, right? Wrong.

The greatest, most obvious mistake that American administrations make is to overcompensate for the flaws of the previous one. The pendulum should come to rest in the middle, not swing to the other extreme. Bush's fundamental mistake was in becoming the anti-Bill Clinton, rather than merely steering away from his predecessor's roughest edges. Clinton had been obsessed with Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, so rather than focusing on it to a moderate degree, Bush would have none of it at all. Big mistake. Clinton seemingly believed in nothing, so Bush would believe fervently despite the facts. Again, big mistake. Now it looks as though Obama is making a similar blunder. Finesse alone will not get him through the challenges ahead. He's got to become a bit more like Bush. He's got to make clear that he fervently believes in and cares about certain things, and he has to communicate that belief starkly: the challenges of health care, Israeli settlements, and particularly the war in Afghanistan demand no less.

Regarding health care, the more he says, the less impact he seems to have. That's because he's not talking about it in crushing moral terms, which he needs to do. The late Sen. Ted Kennedy will always be remembered for the issue because he cast health care as a basic right, not a privilege. Obama needs to communicate a similar austerity of belief.

As far as Israeli settlements are concerned, Obama will never have as much political capital to spend on the issue as he does now. He is early in his term, and won’t need to slip into campaign mode for years, so he can afford to let his approval ratings dip in response to tough stances on controversial issues. If halting settlement activity requires applying strong pressure on Israel, he has no time to waste. He has to be steadfast and incorrigible: he has to be a bit like Bush. If there truly is a peace settlement to be had, this is no issue that can be finessed.

Then there’s Afghanistan. During the campaign, Obama portrayed Afghanistan as the good war. Whatever his intentions in doing so, that position served to paint Iraq as the bad war, while at the same time liberating Democrats from the calumny that they have been perennially soft on national security. But actually winning the war – as opposed to taking deft stances toward it – will require the same level of stick-to-itiveness and willingness to sustain high degrees of unpopularity that Bush displayed when he doubled-down on his bets in Iraq, and that President Abraham Lincoln displayed during the Civil War.

I am certainly not comparing Bush to Lincoln, or even suggesting that Bush won in Iraq. I am merely suggesting that the stubbornness he displayed in ordering the "surge" is a trait that Obama will need if he truly intends to persevere in Afghanistan.

Obama is actually off to a good start. You are who you appoint, and in appointing the highly regarded Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal to replace Army Gen. David McKiernan, Obama and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have signaled a ruthless desire both for victory and to kill or capture key al-Qaeda figures. But now comes the harder part. McChrystal may well ask for many more troops, and that will be politically difficult for Obama to accommodate. For there is a belief on the homefront, not unfounded, that Afghanistan may be an unwinnable war.

Furthermore, neither Bush nor Obama has ever clearly articulated why America is in Afghanistan in the first place. After 9/11, there was a national consensus to invade, so as to dismantle the Taliban regime that had given refuge to Osama bin Laden, and allowed him to plan the attacks. But rebuilding the country and establishing democracy there was never part of the deal, and one could argue that what America is now engaged in amounts to an extravagant example of mission creep.

I believe there are in fact good reasons why America is in Afghanistan: the future of a stable, nuclearized Pakistan, as well as of Central Asia, depends upon it. It is also important for containing Iran. Defeat would constitute a moral victory for Islamic terrorists worldwide, and would demoralize our own armed forces. Obama needs to make these points and more. To build the semblance of a stable Afghanistan, he needs to be all in on the issue, and to publicly communicate as much. He can't finesse Afghanistan: doing so would mean returning war policy to the same degree of ambivalence it held under Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, when we were not fully committed to the fight in either Iraq or Afghanistan, even as our troops were being killed daily. Returning to the Rumsfeld era would be a supreme irony for Obama, yet that could be the direction we are headed.

The path before the President is hard. To make his way, he will need to truly commit himself – even if that means taking a cue from his predecessor.

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Robert D. Kaplan is the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. He is the chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. 

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