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How Politics Matters In The Afghanistan Debate

I want to make a preemptive strike against those who might complain about an overemphasis on the politics of President Obama's decision to send more troops to Afghanistan. At a very basic level, the yearning for a politics-free debate is as foolish as hungering for a calorie-free moon pie. You can consume both, but neither has substance. In the modern era, the politics of war are inextricably linked to the conduct of war. The White House is certainly aware of this, which is why they're preparing a campaign to convince the country, the Congress and the world that they're on the right course. The American people seem to want their president to take public opinion into account. Does it matter, firstly, whether a war can be just if a majority does not support it? Does public backing make it easier to prosecute a war? Does public opposition to a war increase the chances of defeat -- a failure to achieve the set out goals? I think it does. And does the experience of Iraq make it more difficult to trust the government, period? The answer, clearly, is yes.

To a thinner complaint -- that the press will over utilize sports/game metaphors when analyzing the president's decision -- I say: get over it. Politics is what this blog covers primarily. And so it does matter whether President Obama's troop request is perceived by his party as a capitulation to General McChrystal, a rebuff of General McChrystal or a responsible decision on its merits.

It is one thing to say -- and I believe this -- that politics played little or no role in the chain of events that precipitated Obama's decision, but it is quite another to say that politics does not or should not play a role in how that decision is received and even carried out in the realm of funding. A non-political decision has political effects. To try and figure out what those effects are without influencing them is one goal -- one goal of many -- that political journalists will be aspiring to this week. There will doubtless be breathless overstatements, arguments without expertise, all the stuff that people hate about punditry. That's not very edifying.

But to suggest that the only worthy analysis -- the only allowable analysis this week -- will be from experts with knowledge of military and foreign affairs -- to suggest this is to suggest a narrow and constrained discourse that is at odds with reality. Political pundits don't know and will only foolishly speculate about whether Obama's decision will result in his goals being achieved; it is, of course, on that very important question, reasonable to defer judgment to others. This blog will cover the reactions and try to see if there are common themes or interesting points of debate. The way Americans answer vital questions like whether a war is just -- or whether, even if it is just, it is in our national interest to fight it -- is informed by their political ideologies.

We will also cover the basic politics of war; who gains, who doesn't; who is afraid and who isn't; who is calibrating their statements and who is standing firm; which party is more united; which party uses unity to bludgeon the other, and how they do this. I do worry about political debates so easily turning callous and, by their very existence, hardening opinion. It's been dangerous for health care, and it is quite parlous for anything related to our national security. Finally, I think political analysts must remember to keep a human perspective. This is really not an escalation of the war for America or for Britain -- it is an escalation of the war in and around the villages and cities of the Afghan people. These human beings have been at war for, what, 25 out of the last 30 years? This point I fear will be lost. It is something, I am told, that President Obama has emphasized over and over to his war cabinet. It drives his skepticism. It is why he took so long to make his decision.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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