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Mistrust but Verify – Conservatives, the President, and Afghanistan #2

posted at 12:20 pm on September 15, 2009 by

With the Administration focused on its domestic agenda, and with the next major decision on troop deployments not expected for weeks if not months, Speaker Pelosi, Representative John Murtha, and Senator Carl Levin have still found time in recent days to confirm broad opposition within the President’s coalition to any military escalation in Afghanistan. The President himself has shown no interest in responding: He might, for instance, have utilized last Friday’s 9/11 anniversaries to rally support for his “war of necessity,” but neither his 9/11 op-ed on service nor his speech at the Pentagon specifically mentioned the troops in their field or their mission.

Opinion is unsettled on the President’s other flank as well. Blogging at Contentions, Jennifer Rubin concludes that a “robust commitment to military victory does not come naturally to Obama,” and she observes that the “‘out of Afghanistan’ set on the Right” has been encouraged by his reticence:

If Obama’s not serious, then we have to leave, they pronounce. But that’s what the debate is about now—to see if the president can be encouraged and supported to do the right thing. There will be time enough to quibble and, yes, condemn if he fails to fulfill his responsibilities as commander in chief. But it seems like a rigged game to complain that the president is insufficiently resolute—and then egg him on to be less resolute.

In other words: Don’t start complaining until you’re sure what you’re complaining about. It’s clear that she’s actually talking to – admonishing – two different groups of grousers: There are those, like George Will, Ralph Peters, and Jack Kelly, and their more numerous counterparts on the far left, and of course in the general populace, who simply do not believe in the strategy. There are others, however, who might support it, or the Afghan phase of a larger, more aggressive anti-Islamist strategy – under a different Commander-in-Chief.

At The National Review, Andrew McCarthy has offered one of the stronger statements of the last position, in a stridently negative answer to his own question “Would Obama Really Fight the War?”:

To have the stomach for what it would take to destroy the Taliban, Obama would have to face down opposition from the Muslim world. The Muslim world may not love the Taliban, but it is foolish to presume that they prefer us. I am convinced that, as between the Muslim world and us, Obama believes that the Muslim world has the stronger case. Obama doesn’t really want to fight the war, but he doesn’t want the political fallout that would come from not fighting it. What better way to thread that needle than to escalate troop levels — not for the purpose of eviscerating the Taliban, which is what my FPI [Foreign Policy Initiative] friends want, but instead for the purpose of redistributing American wealth to the Third World (Obama’s signature legislative proposal when he was a senator) and trying to build a socialist sharia state?

The above goes further than McCarthy’s original thesis, which is summarized via the article’s sub-title as “more troops only make sense if we think [Obama]’s trying to win.” Indeed, especially given McCarthy’s views on Islamism (political Islam) and his suggestion that American lives are being wasted for the sake of passing on stolen treasure to our enemies, he is coming as close to accusing the President of treason as possible, and on multiple grounds, without using the word.

You don’t have to be an Obama supporter to be made uncomfortable by this extraordinary claim, and, in politics even more than in academic or scientific discourse, truly extraordinary, intemperate-sounding claims call for truly extraordinary proof. I’ll leave it others to peruse McCarthy’s article and his other writings and judge for themselves (my personal verdict is “not quite, not yet”), but, regardless of the truth of the matter, an attempt to persuade even a substantial minority of Americans that their President is aiding and abetting the enemy cannot rest on rhetoric, guilt by association, and ideological disagreement, or even on a reasonably persuasive brief: It would require shared experience and a collective willingness to believe. Even the weaker form of the argument, merely that the President has given us ample basis to doubt his ability to lead on the Conflict Formerly Known as the War on Terror, would require an objective, effectively undeniable demonstration before it becomes valuable political currency.

In other words the political objective for the opposition, even and especially for those whose opposition to Afghan policy rests on doubts like McCarthy’s, can only be to obtain clarity – even if that means that we, all of us, and more than a few innocent bystanders, take our democratic lumps for a bad electoral decision. On Afghanistan, either Obama is, for once, as good as his word, or he’s not. We need to find out. As or more important, if McCarthy is right or anywhere near, we need our wayward President to be found out in the clear light of day.

Much the same is true for the strategy itself, which McCarthy also finds wanting in its current outlines. McCarthy starts his article focusing not on Obama, but on a single phrase from the FPI’s recent open letter expressing mainstream conservative support for an Afghanistan Surge. “They had me,” he writes, “up until ‘free Afghans from the chains of tyranny.’” Though the FPI letter’s use of that phrase, or cliche, may come across in context as awkwardly florid, the words are obviously meant to serve as a broad generalization regarding an aspect of the military’s current strategy, not as a fully elaborated war aim. McCarthy treats them as an implied commitment to build a modern democracy in Afghanistan. This simplistic reading can, I think, be dispensed with out of hand: Tyranny is a special case, an extreme and aggressive form of authoritarianism. Neither the former Taliban government of Afghanistan nor the Hashemite monarchy of Jordan nor the Principality of Monaco nor any of hundred countries that rarely provide top stories for the evening news qualify as full-fledged democracies on the American model, but that doesn’t make them all tyrannies. If we leave Afghanistan with a reasonably competent and responsible, non-pathological and broadly self-correcting authority, even one with “socialistic sharia” tendencies, it will represent a distinct improvement over profound misrule by the totalitarians, terrorists, and warlords who were still fighting over the place when we arrived with our 9/11-inspired agenda.

The other element of strategic disagreement is more complex Though McCarthy apparently envisions or would support a larger strategy of direct confrontation with Islamism, with Iran at the bullseye, he pauses to defend those who have given few signs of sharing either his ambitions or those of the FPI signatories:

We should all be able to admit that, whatever we’re doing in Afghanistan, we’re not really trying to win this war — if we define that as working to defeat the Islamist enemy in totality. Half-measures already are the order of the day, and so I respectfully suggest that we resist accusing each other of calling for “retreat” and “surrender.” I don’t understand anyone on the right — from those who share George Will’s position to those who agree with the FPI position — to be calling for surrender. The “retreat” that’s been proposed by Will is not the surrendering sort. It’s the kind you undertake after you’ve achieved your major objectives, when you don’t have any desire to be an empire or long-term occupier but stand ready to attack vigorously if a serious threat to your country reemerges.

It’s an odd, excluded middle kind of plea for unity on the right: Those “working to defeat the Islamist enemy in totality” skipping over the mainstream position to pull in those who favor a “withdraw to deter” scorpion’s stance. McCarthy prefers the “totality” option, but seems to recognize that there’s vanishingly little popular support for it at this time, not to mention zero likelihood that our “socialist Sharia” President or his nation-building generals will pursue it. If it bothers McCarthy that open socialists and sharia-ists would likely unclench their fists and join hands with him and Will on the fallback, he doesn’t let on.

Without over-indulging in armchair generalship, we can also note that nothing about the surge strategy forecloses such other options, but that once we’ve followed McCarthy, or followed George Will or followed Nancy Pelosi, out of Afghanistan (or Iraq), it would likely take a cataclysm, or two, to bring us back. As or more important, even if we were ready now to declare the no-confidence, no-trust, no-return point with Mr. Obama as well as with the generals whose credibility far exceeds his, the answer on Afghanistan may not be as simple as looking for the quickest possible exit. We may determine, contrary to Will and McCarthy, but without any excessive confidence in this president, that the war in Afghanistan will have to be won sooner or later, not least for the sake of countries like Pakistan or Iran that, in Will’s phrase, “really matter.” Supporting our current CinC might therefore remain necessary, if not with full confidence in his ability to fight and win the real war, then in the determination to maintain our position and our relative freedom of movement while we await a more coherent and effective policy under some successor.

Similarly, even if Will and McCarthy are right that a nation-building – or, more accurately, state-building – counterinsurgency in Afghanistan is doomed to failure, turning on the proverbial dime could magnify the difficulties and costs of retreat. Under this president, in conditions of demonstrably uncertain and unpredictable leadership, amidst destruction of morale and with political divisions widening on all sides, a withdrawal under fire from the Afghanistan front could turn into a rout on the way to strategic chaos. The principal aim of this surge is to suppress the insurgency while giving Afghan and Pakistani security forces a chance to find their feet. If even this limited, two-year objective is unattainable, then it’s worth the investment to find out, and, even in the worst case, it will make the withdrawal of US and allied forces safer and easier – in effect as a feint that helps to secure our lines of retreat – while we prepare judiciously for what comes next.

Finally, we should be prepared for uncertainty and disagreement over which case – best, worst, muddled – seems to be developing at any given time. From the very beginning of the War on Terror, and in another sense for much longer, imperfect conclusions and “half-measures” have in fact suited an American grand strategy this is appropriately defensive – one might say conservative – regarding an economically and militarily preponderant position in the world. There may not be much political profit for conservatives in such an approach. It may seem to entail the sacrifice of a passing opportunity to make things harder for a despised president, but the only alternative would be to adopt a new and radical view of political opposition, in the absence of any pretext greater than disagreement and suspicion, while abandoning precepts and commitments that go back to the Cold War or further, including especially a steadfastness in pursuit of the American interest beyond party.

Bad may yet come to even-worse. Obama’s “war of necessity” may turn unnecessary sometime between this afternoon and the end of his term in office, or it may fall apart for some other reason, and a humiliating retreat may commence, bringing new horrors in its wake. Even then, conservatives who fought all along for a stronger, broader, and more clear-eyed commitment can at least ask, “Who lost Afghanistan?” or “Who lost Central Asia?” or “Who lost the War on Terror?” without having to point to themselves, without having broken faith, and with something to offer afterward other than a search for the next defeat.

cross-posted at Zombie Contentions
Conservatives & Afghanistan #1

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