Michael Steele Was Right


Consider the statement that gave Bill Kristol the vapors and had the neo-imperial triumvirate, McCain, Butters and DeMint, hounding him over the weekend:

"It was the president who was trying to be cute by half by flipping a script demonizing Iraq, while saying the battle really should be in Afghanistan."

This is a little cutting, but not far off. Obama has never been a pacifist; he's a Niebuhrian realist, as he keeps telling us. And in 2001, there was a clear case for removing a regime that had allowed its territory to be used by upper-class Jihadist fanatics to attack the US mainland (if only by commandeering American planes). But by 2007, it was clear that this war was failing as well, and whatever leverage we might have had there as liberators had been squandered by the Bush-Cheney administration's negligence and focus on Iraq. Any realist at that point would have seen the merits of a policy commensurate with the failed occupation of six years. And indeed Obama signaled very strongly in his campaign and first few months that he would be following a minimalist strategy in Afghanistan. His rhetoric in the campaign - that Afghanistan was the good war and Iraq the bad one - was mere rhetoric, as Steele notes. It was a cute formula for domestic political consumption that was divorced from the practical exigencies of running an empire in the graveyard of all empires. Still, one assumed the president wouldn't actually be more utopian than Bush, more dedicated to the establishment cult of Petraeus, more eager to win a war that simply cannot be won.

But last fall, we discovered that Obama was a dreamer and actually believed he could pull off - a decade late - what no invading army has ever pulled off in Afghanistan since the beginning of time. The shift came last fall with the policy review, and now we have a hundred thousand troops, dying at record rates, to implement a counter-insurgency strategy, based on the one that so glaringly failed in Iraq. (For those who believe the surge has succeeded, one must simply ask: where is the non-sectarian Iraqi government that was its stated goal? Why was Joe Biden in Iraq again this past week?) Back to Steele:

Well, if he's such a student of history, has he not understood that you know that's the one thing you don't do, is engage in a land war in Afghanistan? All right, because everyone who has tried, over a thousand years of history, has failed. And there are reasons for that. There are other ways to engage in Afghanistan."

Amen. This is, at this point, Obama's war - because it was a war of choice for him, not necessity. The scale and ambition of this madness is Obama's scale and ambition, no one else's. This war is now his war, as much as Vietnam was LBJ's. And this is not because he inherited it. He inherited a critical window to cut our losses and get the hell out, with a minimalist Biden-style strategy to minimize, if not end, the threat.

If the GOP leadership were not still controlled by the neocons eager to re-live the glory days of Bush and Cheney, the Republican party would be reprising its role as the realist reminder of the limits of government power in America and across the world. But they have long since abandoned realism for the fantasies of neoconservatism. And so we have two neo-imperial parties and a presidency reeking of fear and paralyzed in the face of the toughest decision any president has to make: conceding that a war is unwinnable on his terms before others determine it for him - on theirs'.