THE SPINE DECEMBER 3, 2009
The Places In Between was my introduction to Afghanistan. Published in 2006, it was written by Rory Stewart, who at age 36 has already lived a life at once so adventurous and so quirky to defy easy narrative. He will soon take a safe (Tory) seat in the British parliament and rise quickly in the ranks, so quickly that he will still be thought young when he ascends to 10 Downing Street. Why not? (Rory is the second of my friends who is thought to be the future prime minister of an American ally, the first being Michael Ignatieff, Liberal Party aspirant in Ottawa. I hired Michael for his first job at Harvard and brought him into the New Republic circle.)
In many ways, Places stands in contrast to our hopes of making a civilized polity out of Afghanistan. The modalities are just not there. One cannot overlook the country's essential primitivism and its people's backwardness. This does not mean that Afghanis lack wisdom and charm, humor and goodness, dignity and elegance, all of which there is plenty, as Stewart's book testifies convincingly. But he is not a romantic or a romanticizer. Yes, he was tutor to the royals, Prince Harry and Prince William. Still, I doubt that he thinks of them as versions of John Stuart Mill.
Soon after the Iraq war started, Stewart became what was roughly the British regent of two provinces in the battle. The Prince of the Marshes is a chronicle, detailed and diagnostic, of the situation, his and that of the Iraqis, of England's, of the alliance. War and disappointment--not to say dismay--come together. One can even foretell disappointment without it ceasing to be disappointing.
So it was with Iraq, and so it has been with Afghanistan ...and will be with Afghanistan. (Leave alone, for mercy's sake, Pakistan.)
Weeks ago (and long before The Speech) at a dinner party, some certified Afghanistan experts, whom I will not and really cannot name, and other knowledgeable folk discussed Obama's impending plans. And, course, their own. The range was great: This being Cambridge, some wanted total withdrawal NOW. Others believed that only an enormous increase in troops could help. The rest veered towards center: 30,000 of "ours," 10,000 from allies. Exactly what the president finally decided. It was middle ground. That's where the stars had pointed all along.
I am not giving out secrets. But Rory Stewart's face seemed etched in doubt. I will not presume to read the 4000 Cadet faces at West Point.
The president did what he had to do. The policy was the least he could do without actually giving up on Pakistan, which even Carl Levin and Russ Feingold don't want him to do and for the defense of which Obama was eloquent and clear. The prospect of the disintegration of Pakistan is horrendous. But that doesn't mean it is altogether unlikely. The ongoing existence of a Pakistani state is, I believe, the cornerstone of our Afghan policy. Ironically, the future of India also relies on a stable Pakistan--alas, a thing in the future.
Obama also built on America's bloody encounter in Iraq, for which there has finally been a real and ongoing consensus--a consensus built on success. The speech tried to have it both ways, reproaching George Bush while taking up his "surge" strategy as an inheritance in Afghanistan.
The essentials of the speech were historically rooted, politically realistic in laying out the dangers inherent in any American retreat, intellectually challenging in taking on the platitudes of some of his supporters, who took them on from him.
Robert Kagan, an intellectual star in the conservative firmament, has done a column about the president's address, "Obama's lonely decision," in this morning's Washington Post. It is finely argued and massively supported.
There is a new doctrine out there that seems to enjoy enormous cache among the smart foreign policy set: fight wars until they get hard, then quit. Vice President Biden seems to be a leading proponent of this approach. While a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden backed the Iraq War and spent the first few years after 2003 rightly calling on the Bush administration to send more troops. But when Bush finally wriggled himself free from the disastrous strategies of Donald Rumsfeld, Biden declared the situation hopeless and called instead for breaking up Iraq into three pieces. He then proceeded to oppose the very troop increase he had so long, and so courageously, fought for. And, of course, in opposing the surge, he had the whole foreign policy establishment on his side, epitomized by the wise people of the Baker-Hamilton commission.
Many Bush supporters like to point to that president’s enormous courage in turning against the prevailing winds, disregarding not only the advice of the foreign policy establishment but of many of his own top advisers and much of the Republican party, which in early 2007 was perfectly prepared to quit Iraq to save their political skins.
But now we see President Obama doing much the same thing, turning against a majority in his own party, resisting the counsel of Biden and the wise men to head for the exits from a war that they had long supported.
It seems to me that Obama deserves even more credit for courage than Bush did, for he has risked much more. By the time Bush decided to support the surge in Iraq in early 2007, his presidency was over and discredited, brought down in large part by his own disastrous decision not to send the right number of troops in 2003, 2004, 2005 or 2006. Obama has had to make this decision with most of his presidency still ahead of him. Bush had nothing to lose. Obama could lose everything.
So what explains two presidents who could not be more different making the same lonely decision? I suspect that it is because they, and they alone, have to bear responsibility for losing. Congress is brilliant at never taking responsibility. Its members always voted for the war before they voted against it -- in Vietnam, in Iraq and in Afghanistan. The foreign policy establishment and intellectual world are much the same. They fully supported intervention in Vietnam, mostly supported intervention in Iraq and fully supported the war in Afghanistan -- until the wars got hard, or embarrassing and difficult to defend in polite company. Then they bailed, desperately trying to cover their tracks along the way, and offering reassuring images of what losing would look like. Somehow they never mention the helicopters taking off from the roofs of abandoned American embassies; the rout of Afghans, Iraqis or Vietnamese who made the mistake of trusting America’s word; or the collapse of America’s reputation as a serious world power.
Since presidents and military commanders have to take responsibility for losing, they are less inclined than congressmen and pundits to paint losing in rosy hues.
Like most Democratic ideologues, most Republican ideologues are not content to have had the president move to an aggressively responsive policy in AfPak. It is clear why the liberal left is in spasm: Obama has dropped their pretenses that, if you do nothing, you can accomplish much. With the Republicans, it is a different matter. Partisanship does not permit them to recognize in the Democratic president, in this Democratic president, the patriotism of his predecessors.
So the New York Post, symptomatic of many on the right (and it is a symptom) has gone on a rampage because the Obama speech did not include the word "win" in it. Horrors! But he did say "our cause is just, our resolve unwavering." And he said it many times and in many ways, each appropriate to the specific point he was making.
And, yes, Obama did announce a time-frame from which almost all of his closest colleagues have dissented. No, I don't mean Joe Biden, who (good sources tell me) has been going around D.C. saying the president is "wrong, wrong, wrong." Well, no one ever accused him, either as senator or as vice president, of being discreet. Take the headline on the front page of this morning's Financial Times: "Gates says target date for withdrawal from Afghanistan might be revised." This is not an exit strategy. This is an exit wish. And I want Monopoly from Santa Claus. Judah Maccabee gives no presents.
"God bless you. May God bless the United States of America."