Fallows, Kaplan And Afghanistan


Here's Bob's case for urgent decisive action and Jim's response:

If he or others can really establish that a decision right this minute about Afghanistan is indispensable -- that this is a moment comparable to the Cuban Missile Crisis etc -- then, OK. (For a contrary argument, see this.) Otherwise, everything I've learned about politics indicates that impatience is almost always destructive, that especially when it comes to military commitments it's crucial to think and think again, and that a president should be less afraid of being "inconsistent" than of making a big mistake.

The fact that two of the smartest, sincerest people around can disagree on this is testament to the difficulty of the decision. Maybe it's post-Bush syndrome, but I'm much more skeptical of dramatic presidential decidership than I used to be. In an equation as complex as this one, prudence dictates caution and a weighing of all the possible factors. Since they all keep changing, this can paralyze. But I don't think Obama will let this drift for ever. And there's an element to Bob's argument that I just don't buy:

Obama must capture the toughness and competence that Bush displayed as a war leader at the end of his term. Otherwise, in the coming months, the Democrats may be seen as having lost a war.

I don't think the debate here should be about the politics of the thing or the appearance of wobbliness or the perception of toughness. It's high time the US conducted its foreign policy according to its own sober analysis of its self-interest rather than the need to be "tough" or to "save face" or to back up allies who will end up more alienated if we dig ourselves more deeply in to the Afghan ditch. Of course, the US is wobbly.

After eight years in Afghanistan, the American people are being told by the Pentagon that the only way forward is a massive increase in manpower and resources. Even if you think the Iraq surge was a success, the expense and risk and long-term wisdom of the same strategy in the vastness of Afghanistan is highly dubious - especially after a fraudulent election. (I am still on the fence about the Iraq surge because we simply don't yet know if it has actually succeeded in doing what it was supposed to do: facilitating a unified, functioning democratic Iraq which won't revert to sectarianism and dictatorship in the absence of vast numbers of US troops. In so far as it helped the US save face while we walked and then ran for the exits, it worked. But that's not toughness and competence. It was just the least worst option worth trying before we gave up entirely.)

Far, far better to mull this over and decide to get out of a hopeless situation than to carry on a doomed mission that will, in fact, kill Obama's presidency (and a lot of young Americans) and advance US security by an indefinable amount. The more I mull this over, the more I think we should get out as swiftly as can be done responsibly. If we take a p.r. hit, if al Qaeda claims victory, so be it. America should define victory on America's terms, not be yanked around by a bunch of braggart Jihadists. It was a necessary war in the first place; eight years later, it's not so clear. Unless it's very, very clear, the Powell doctrine should return.

There's a reason for the Vietnam Syndrome: Vietnam. Only this time, the US is flat broke and the war is even more unpopular at home and intractable on the ground.