At Least President Bush Was Sincere About Afghanistan

by David Rieff | August 31, 2010

When President Obama named his cabinet, people harkened back to Lincoln and said that he had assembled a team of rivals. To put it charitably, this is an exaggeration. Lincoln brought not just his principal rival, William Seward, into his cabinet as secretary of state, he also brought in his two other main contenders for the Republican nomination for president in 1860. Salmon Chase, the party’s greatest and most uncompromising foe of slavery and an unjustly neglected American hero, was made secretary of the treasury, while Edward Bates became attorney general. In contrast, President Obama named only one rival to his cabinet, Hillary Clinton, and the ideological differences between them were far narrower than the ones that separated Lincoln from his rivals.

A more accurate account would describe the foreign policy of this administration as the work not of a team of rivals but of a coalition government, with, in effect, the president having subcontracted foreign policy to Mrs. Clinton and to Secretary of Defense Gates. An intermittent passivity has been a hallmark of this president from the moment the he stopped campaigning and started to try to govern. Nowhere is it more evident than in the conduct of foreign policy generally, and especially in the conduct of the wars in which the United States is now engaged. But the president is, as the cliché goes, the commander-in-chief. He cannot subcontract; when he tries to do so, the proper expression for what he is doing is abdicating his duty.

There is an old Washington adage that every administration will sooner or later make you nostalgic for its predecessor. I am not yet willing to go that far, if only because of Guantanamo and Katrina, which I do not believe it is hyperbole to say were crimes, not simply policy mistakes or errors in judgment. But the Obama administration’s simultaneous commitment to prosecuting the war in Afghanistan and its inability to define the end state that it is hoping to achieve there in any way that makes strategic let alone moral sense, does make one think of frying pans and fires. I feared George Bush’s strategic vision, and believed that it would lead the United States to disaster. But at least he had one. And there was nothing cynical about President Bush’s moral ambitions. However wrongheaded, at least he was sincere.

Obviously, sincerity is not everything. But insincerity is less than nothing. And on the long war (or whatever we’re calling it this month) against the jihadis (or whatever we’re calling them this month), the Obama administration is either being stupid, which, given the superior intelligence of the president himself, and of his principal advisors on foreign policy, seems highly unlikely, or, feeling itself obliged to continue to prosecute the wars, it simply lacks the fortitude to admit to the fix in which it finds itself.

In previous columns, I have written with anger and disgust about the falsity of the administration’s claims that its global health and other development assistance and relief programs are likely to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of those to whom these are directed. A friend with far deeper practical experience of these matters than I could ever hope to have commented critically that I had failed to acknowledge the extent to which claims that foreign aid serves U.S. foreign policy interests are motivated by the administration’s need to provide a rationale for aid that would satisfy both Congress and the public. He was right, I think, but only in the short term.

Yes, short term is how Washington thinks, and, more to the point, how Congress appropriates, but self-flattering lies of this kind are always exposed in the long run, and development assistance, like counterinsurgency, is either a long-term affair or it is doomed to irrelevance if not outright failure.

I am told that, in a recent private conversation, one senior administration official angrily demanded to know what critics expected him to do—“tell the Senate that we need sixty billion dollars and that we’ll be there ten years?” But that is precisely what they should do if they are serious about prosecuting the war. If the administration continues on its present course, doling out the truth with an eyedropper, it will soon become clear that its Faustian bargain, not only with Hamid Karzai and his band of merry thieves and drug dealers in Kabul and with the government of Pakistan, but also with its own collective conscience, isn’t even getting anything. At least Faust got something from the Devil.

Far from being naivete, expecting the Obama administration to tell the truth is actually to ask it to make the effort to understand its longer term self-interest, and, with it, the country’s. Instead, the president and his foreign policy team have combined magical thinking—General Petraeus will work miracles, just as he did in Iraq—and political cowardice—we won’t admit we’re going to stay in Afghanistan for many years because that would further demoralize the left of the Democratic Party.

Democrats have always had a special weakness for believing that the decisions they make out of political expediency somehow still epitomize virtue. During the Clinton administration, it was commonplace to hear senior officials privately tout the following syllogism: Politically, it’s impossible for us to do what we all know to be the right thing; but we would never do the wrong thing; so the bastard compromise we are going to make is the right thing. I believe the polite term for this is triangulation. There are others. It is in this spirit that the Obama administration is pursuing its policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and it is as unconscionable as it is ignoble.

I was never an admirer of President Obama. Despite his eloquence and his intelligence, he reminded me of no one so much as Michael Dukakis. Now, as I watch the waste of life in Afghanistan and the cynical rubbish coming out of Washington, he reminds me of Pontius Pilate.

I am well aware of the gravity of this charge and the violence of this language. But, unlike George W. Bush, President Obama is ordering Americans to kill and to die in a cause that he is either incapable or unwilling to define, let alone to justify. And a war that an administration cannot define or justify, and does not appear even to believe in, is an immoral war, a war that should not be fought, a war that must be ended immediately if the administration is to salvage its honor.

David Rieff is the author of eight books, including A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis.

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