In the 1972 Robert Redford film The Hot Rock, a gang of thieves triggers a post-hypnotic suggestion using the phrase above: Afghanistan Bananistan. In response, an insider robotically leads them to the priceless jewel they are trying to steal.
In the wake of President Obama’s speech to the Cadets at West Point last night, I watched as people on the left and the right fell into similar predictable, trance-like responses to Obama’s call for 30,000 additional troops, with a timetable for their withdrawal.
Many Republicans, like John McCain, supported the troop increase, while (predictably) criticizing the timetable for bringing them back.
Many Democrats, like Russ Feingold, opposed it, saying the war is no longer in our national security interests.
Today, I’m more interested in the criticism Obama is getting from the left. After all the Republican theme is easy to predict. As Sullivan said:
[Obama] should not be deluded in believing the GOP will in any way support him. They will oppose him every step of every initiative. They will call him incompetent if Afghanistan deteriorates, they will call him a terrorist-lover if he withdraws, they will call him a traitor if he does not do everything they want, and they will eventually turn on him and demand withdrawal, just as they did in the Balkans with Clinton.
The reaction on the left takes two forms, not necessarily exclusive. The first is that this “surge” is a betrayal by Obama of the anti-war campaign he ran; the second is that it is doomed to fail.
Let’s take these one at a time.
As president, I would pursue a new strategy, and begin by providing at least two additional combat brigades to support our effort in Afghanistan. We need more troops, more helicopters, better intelligence-gathering and more nonmilitary assistance to accomplish the mission there. I would not hold our military, our resources and our foreign policy hostage to a misguided desire to maintain permanent bases in Iraq.
Obama was ALWAYS comparing the two wars: the war of choice (Iraq) to the war of necessity (Afghanistan). His main foreign policy argument against McCain was that he’d missed that distinction, to the detriment of our national security.
So for those of you who think Obama has been corrupted by the Generals, or the defense establishment, keep this in mind: he’s been telegraphing this for a long time.
Perhaps you weren’t paying attention?
It’s the second point that resonates more with me, and where I have to say, I just don’t know.
I am not alone in being exhausted by Afghanistan. It is an unconquerable country; its government is at its best searingly incompetent and at its worst criminally corrupt; and the “Taliban” we are trying to remove from the equation are as indistinguishable from the general Afghan populace as the Vietcong were from the population in Vietnam.
To his credit, Obama acknowledged those realities:
- “Although a legitimate government was elected by the Afghan people, it’s been hampered by corruption, the drug trade, an under-developed economy, and insufficient security forces.”
- “So tonight, I want the Afghan people to understand — America seeks an end to this era of war and suffering. We have no interest in occupying your country. We will support efforts by the Afghan government to open the door to those Taliban who abandon violence and respect the human rights of their fellow citizens.”
Still – can it work?
I don’t know. Some are saying that the timeline is a spur to the military: you wanted this, now deliver, or it’s on you. And a prod to the Afghan government, that we are not blind to their manifest unpopularity (and the election Karzai just stole). And there are some who believe that no matter what we do, it won’t get better, and our blood and treasure will be wasted.
The difference between Barack Obama and George Bush is that I trust that Obama has truly considered all his options, and is doing what he thinks is best. I never trusted that Bush thought through all the implications of his policies (or even most of them), or that he re-evaluated them (except, after the 2006 elections, when he fired Donald Rumsfeld and initiated the Iraq “surge.”)
Karoli, whose brilliance on health care reform has made her an invaluable resource over the past six months, had a terrific post on Afghanistan yesterday, before Obama’s speech. She notes the time and consideration that went into the decision; the weight Obama clearly feels in sending young men and women into harm’s way; and the reality that he isn’t starting from a blank slate. And she reminds us that what we need from our Presidents, more than anything, is the ability, when necessary, to trust them:
I will never, ever forget that the persons responsible for forcing this President to make this decision are George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, nor will I keep quiet about that fact when I speak or write in support of the President’s decision.
I have a son who served in the Army. I have draft-age children. I have friends whose kids are in Afghanistan. They deserve our respect, our support, and our commitment to their assignment for the time they have remaining in that country.
When you listen to the President tonight, remember that he stood before those families. Remember that he stands before them now. Remember that he isn’t moving pieces around a chessboard. If he’s willing to take the risk of losing the support of those who elected him, I believe he has reasons beyond what we’ve heard play in the media that support his decision, and warrant our support as well.
Afghanistan is not Iraq.
Barack Obama is not George W. Bush.
It’s good to remember that.