“Barack Obama Better Be All In” on Afghanistan

At Contentions, the Commentary magazine blog, Peter Wehner assesses the prospects of success for David Petraeus, whom he calls one of the best generals “in our history”:

What Petraeus also needs, apart from time, is the full support of the president and his team. Petraeus had that in Iraq with President Bush. There were no efforts by then-Chief of Staff Josh Bolten to go on Sunday-morning talk shows to interpret troop-withdrawal timelines one way while Petraeus interpreted them another. The Vice President was not actively attempting to undermine what Petraeus was doing in Iraq. Late in the day, the Bush administration, after costly mistakes, decided on the surge strategy and united behind it. Despite enormous political pressure to pull back, Bush gave Petraeus the time and the tools he needed. It was a remarkable demonstration of presidential courage and wisdom. …

On the day Bush met with Petraeus privately in the Oval Office, after the Senate confirmed his selection for a mission that seemed unachievable, Bush said we were doubling down in Iraq. Petraeus said, “Mr. President, this isn’t double-down. … This is all-in.”

Barack Obama better be all in. If he is, he has the right man at the helm. If given the tools, David Petraeus — one more time — can finish the job.

Obama’s Announcement on McChrystal Makes the Best of a Very Bad Situation

President Obama clearly had little choice but to accept Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s resignation, and he did a good job explaining why when he made the announcement:

The conduct represented in the recently published article does not meet the standard that should be set by a commanding general. It undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system. And it erodes the trust that’s necessary for our team to work together to achieve our objectives in Afghanistan. …

It is also true that our democracy depends upon institutions that are stronger than individuals. That includes strict adherence to the military chain of command, and respect for civilian control over that chain of command. And that’s why, as Commander-in-Chief, I believe this decision is necessary to hold ourselves accountable to standards that are at the core of our democracy.

Having been a corporate speechwriter, I tend to look at events through the prism of prepared remarks, and I was particularly impressed by Obama’s Rose Garden announcement.  His praise of McChrystal’s past service went far beyond the usual perfunctory reference to “a long and distinguished career”:

Over the last nine years, with America fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he has earned a reputation as one of our nation’s finest soldiers. That reputation is founded upon his extraordinary dedication, his deep intelligence, and his love of country. I relied on his service, particularly in helping to design and lead our new strategy in Afghanistan. So all Americans should be grateful for General McChrystal’s remarkable career in uniform. … Indeed, it saddens me to lose the service of a soldier who I’ve come to respect and admire.

He emphasized that his nomination of  General David Petraeus represents a change in leadership, but not in strategy:

We will not tolerate a safe haven for terrorists who want to destroy Afghan security from within, and launch attacks against innocent men, women, and children in our country and around the world.

So make no mistake: We have a clear goal. We are going to break the Taliban’s momentum. We are going to build Afghan capacity. We are going to relentlessly apply pressure on al Qaeda and its leadership, strengthening the ability of both Afghanistan and Pakistan to do the same…. this mission is fundamental to the ability of free people to live in peace and security in the 21st century.

(I’d give that section about a B-plus — I’d prefer to have had more explicit acknowledgment that the enemy we face is broader than just the Taliban and al Qaeda.  But he’s never acknowledged that before, and he certainly wasn’t going to break new ground in the context of firing a top general.  The last sentence above at least hints at a global struggle.)

Leave it to Victor Davis Hanson to nail the meaning of the Petraeus nomination:

A final note: It is one of ironies of our present warped climate that Petraeus will face far less criticism from the media and politicians than during 2007–8 (there will be no more “General Betray Us” ads or “suspension of disbelief” ridicule), because his success this time will reflect well on Obama rather than George Bush. It is a further irony that Obama is surging with Petraeus despite not long ago declaring that such a strategy and such a commander were failures in Iraq. And it is an even further irony that he is now rightly calling for “common purpose” when — again not long ago, at a critical juncture in Iraq — Obama himself, for partisan purposes on the campaign trail, had no interest in the common purpose of military success in Iraq.

I share the gratitude Obama described for General McChrystal’s service.  But what the hell was he thinking giving access to a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine?  The threshold decision to participate in a story for an anti-establishment icon was an even bigger lapse of judgment than anything McChrystal or his aides said.

Biden Was Right About Obama’s “Great Achievement”

Vice President Joe Biden has come under fire for telling Larry King last week that:

… progress in Iraq “could be one of the great achievements of this administration.”

“You’re going to see 90,000 American troops come marching home by the end of the summer,” he said. “You’re going to see a stable government in Iraq that is actually moving toward a representative government.”

By the time I became aware of this, the pile-on had already started.  I held off on commenting because it seemed like all the interesting rhetorical gambits had already been played.

Max Boot looked on the bright side:

Some might dismiss this as chutzpah from someone who, like Barack Obama, opposed the surge needed to stabilize the situation in Iraq. But, brazen or not, it’s great to see the Obama administration taking ownership of Iraq and realizing that simply pulling out all our troops can’t be the sole goal of our policy there.

Yes, except I don’t think an unscripted comment from Biden,  a walking gaffe machine, is necessarily a reflection of the administration’s thinking.

Over at The Corner, Peter Kirsanow had the cleverest humorous take:

[T]he administration’s achievement is no more astounding than Bull Connor’s passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Kruschev’s reunification of Germany, or Jefferson Davis’s preservation of the Union.

But after thinking about it for several days, I started to realize that Biden was right.

Bear with me here, and think about the fact that after more than a year in office, the Obama administration has not screwed up what the Bush administration achieved in Iraq.  Of course, when you put it that way, it sounds kind of dismissive toward Obama.  But I assert that “not screwing up Iraq” is a non-trivial achievement — and certainly a much better outcome than many of us feared before the election.

Now compare that with the other achievements of Obama’s first year in office:

  • Health care? No.
  • Cap and trade? No.
  • Unemployment? No.

Well, he did successfully nationalize two of the Big Three automakers.   [Update: Not to mention porkulus!] Hm… what’s the opposite of an achievement?

All kidding aside, there is one arena where Obama has an opportunity for a genuinely great achievement: Afghanistan, where the administration is attempting to replicate the strategy that was so successful in Iraq.  From the New York Times:

For much of the past eight years, American and NATO forces have mounted other large military operations to clear towns and cities of Taliban insurgents. And then, almost invariably, they have cleared out, never leaving behind enough soldiers or police officers to hold the place on their own.

And so, almost always, the Taliban returned — and, after a time, so did the American and NATO troops, to clear the place all over again.

“Mowing the grass,” the soldiers and Marines derisively call it.

This time, in Marja, the largest Taliban stronghold, American and Afghan commanders say they will do something they have never done before: bring in an Afghan government and police force behind them. American and British troops will stay on to support them. “We’ve got a government in a box, ready to roll in,” said Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top American commander here.

There are no guarantees, of course — the Afghan “surge” may fail.  But if it does succeed — and as in Iraq, I define “success” in Afghanistan as a reasonably stable, reasonably self-sufficient, democratic government allied with the United States — then I’ll be happy to give Obama credit for that achievement.

Channeling His Inner Neocon: Did the Nobel Speech Launch the Obama Doctrine?

US troops in Afghanistan (AFP/Getty)

US troops in Afghanistan (AFP/Getty)

I may have been too quick to sneer yesterday at President Obama’s appearance in Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize.

The prize itself is still ridiculous, of course.  (And don’t get me started on the statue.)  But in addition to the obvious point that the honor is unearned, the president has faced critics from his left who believe the recent escalation of Mr. Obama’s War is inconsistent with the prize.

Seeking to answer those critics, Obama used his acceptance speech to issue a ringing declaration of American exceptionalism (although he would not use that term).

In the last 24 hours, I’ve watched one conservative after another find things to praise in the speech.  Neo-neocon (not an Obama fan) called it “the most robust defense of American military action I’ve ever heard him give,” and quoted this passage (my emphasis):

But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason…

But the world must remember that it was not simply international institutions — not just treaties and declarations — that brought stability to a post-World War II world. Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms.

In a post in The Corner titled “Obama the Neocon,” Michael Ledeen said:

It’s “only a speech,” to be sure.  And there things I wish he hadn’t said, or said differently.  But it’s a very different sort of speech, and it contained many words that are downright neoconnish:

America will always be a voice for those aspirations that are universal. We will bear witness to the quiet dignity of reformers like Aung Sang Suu Kyi; to the bravery of Zimbabweans who cast their ballots in the face of beatings; to the hundreds of thousands who have marched silently through the streets of Iran. It is telling that the leaders of these governments fear the aspirations of their own people more than the power of any other nation. And it is the responsibility of all free people and free nations to make clear that these movements — these movements of hope and history — they have us on their side.

It sure sounds like President Obama just endorsed the Green Movement in Iran.

In a roundup titled “Conservative Praise for Obama Speech,” Politico notes the endorsement of former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich:

It’s already being called the “Obama Doctrine” – a notion that foreign policy is a struggle of good and evil, that American exceptionalism has blunted the force of tyranny in the world, and that U.S. military can be a force for good and even harnessed to humanitarian ends.

“I think having a liberal president who goes to Oslo on behalf of a peace prize and reminds the committee that they would not be free, they wouldn’t be able to have a peace prize, without having [the ability to use] force,” Gingrich said. “I thought in some ways it’s a very historic speech.”

The conservative other conservatives love to hate, Kathleen Parker, wrote in the Washington Post:

The speech was a signal moment in the evolution and maturation of Obama from ambivalent aspirant to reluctant leader.

Rising to the occasion, he managed to redeem himself at a low point in his popularity by reminding Americans of what is best about themselves.

At Contentions, Jennifer Rubin (really not an Obama fan):

But this speech is perhaps the closest he has come to throwing the American antiwar Left under the bus. America will defend itself. There is evil in the world. And yes, we are at war with religious fanatics:

Most dangerously, we see it in the way that religion is used to justify the murder of innocents by those who have distorted and defiled the great religion of Islam, and who attacked my country from Afghanistan. These extremists are not the first to kill in the name of God; the cruelties of the Crusades are amply recorded. But they remind us that no Holy War can ever be a just war.

For if you truly believe that you are carrying out divine will, then there is no need for restraint – no need to spare the pregnant mother, or the medic, or even a person of one’s own faith. Such a warped view of religion is not just incompatible with the concept of peace, but the purpose of faith – for the one rule that lies at the heart of every major religion is that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

It is not at all what the netroot crowd that lifted him to the presidency had in mind. It seems that reality may be dawning, however dimly, on the White House.

I could go on and on. (I guess I already have.)  I expect in the future I will continue to have more criticism than praise for Mr. Obama. But while I am always proud to be an American, today I am proud of my President.


War and Peace in a Complicated World

obama child statue copyA child shall lead them

After President Obama made his ill-advised announcement that he will begin reversing the coming surge in Afghanistan just 18 months from now, I wrote that “he’ll have plenty of time between now and July 2011 to figure out how to explain, if necessary, that the withdrawal must be delayed.”

In Kabul today, Defense Secretary Robert Gates got an early start on walking back that commitment:

“While we hope to transfer power in July 2011, we will have a large number of forces here for some time beyond that,” Gates told the group at Kabul International Airport. “This is the first time in Afghan history when foreign forces are here to help, and we intend to be your partner for a long time.”

Meanwhile, accepting the Nobel Peace Prize nine days after announcing an escalation of what is now Mr. Obama’s War, the president made the best of a bizarre situation by acknowledging the obvious:

Compared to some of the giants of history who have received this prize — Schweitzer and King; Marshall and Mandela — my accomplishments are slight.

And in Jakarta, Indonesians marked the occasion by unveiling a statue of the Obama Child, swaddled in T-shirt and shorts, embarking on his earthly ministry with the predestined Nobel medallion draped around his neck.

Photo: AFP/Getty


I Still Prefer the Chicago Politician to the Obamessiah

obamamessiahWriting in the Washington Post, Dana Milbank discusses the downward trend in President Obama’s approval rating among liberals — a decline that seems likely to accelerate now that he has announced an escalation in what shall henceforward be known as Mr. Obama’s War.  The disillusionment…

… was bound to happen eventually. Obama had become to his youthful supporters a vessel for all of their liberal hopes. They saw him as a transformational figure who would end war, save the Earth from global warming, restore the economy — and still be home for dinner. They lashed out at anybody who dared to suggest that Obama was just another politician, subject to calculation, expediency and vanity like all the rest.

My first substantive post on this blog dealt with this very issue.  But in my case, I welcomed the emerging evidence that Obama is a politician, not a messiah.  I still do.

From that July 2008 post:

My biggest concern with Obama was the very thing that endeared him to many others — the idea that he was “not a politician,” or was “a new kind of politician.” I never believed that to be the case… but enough people believed it that I had to consider the possibility. The idea of a president who is not a politician is scary. It’s like the idea of a Supreme Court justice who’s not a lawyer. There’s no law against it, and it might even work out OK. But it makes no more sense to put a non-politician in the country’s top political job than it would to put a non-lawyer in the top legal job.

It ain’t always pretty and it ain’t always fair, but politics is the mechanism through which our country is governed.  How many times have you heard variants of “So-and-so is just doing that for political reasons,” with the word “political” spat out as a term of contempt.  But another way to say “doing something for political reasons” is “representing one’s constituents.”

As with any politician, Obama’s constituency is far from monolithic.  But he had a large cadre of supporters who bought into the Obamessiah myth, and it was inevitable that they eventually would feel betrayed.  As he positions himself for re-election, his twin goals will be to convince enough of the former true believers that he is still the best option available, while doing what needs to be done to stabilize Afghanistan and defeat the jihadists.

There’s a tension between those two goals, as we can see in the announcement of the new strategy for Mr. Obama’s War.  His ill-advised announcement of a date certain for beginning to reverse the coming surge is a face-saving fig leaf for the true believers.  Fortunately, he’ll have plenty of time between now and July 2011 to figure out how to explain, if necessary, that the withdrawal must be delayed.

But in the meantime, sounding a tentative trumpet is not the way to rally the troops and win a war.

Not Quite the Clarion Call I Had in Mind, But…

White House photo of the announcement at West Point

… I like the fact that Obama said he would expedite the deployment of the additional troops to Afghanistan.

I went to bed annoyed about the wishy-washyness of what David Ignatius has labeled the “surge, then leave” strategy — why commit to a July 2011 date to begin drawing down the troops?  The administration can’t even predict how many Americans will accept free money to buy a new car. What makes them think  they can predict that the country will be stable enough to start leaving in 18 months — in a situation where the enemy gets a vote?

But this morning I remembered that with Guantanamo, Obama has already proven his ability to abandon a silly deadline.  Once the troops are deployed, the boots on the ground will be real.  The withdrawal date will be a goal.

It’s Mr. Obama’s war now.

(White House photo of the announcement at West Point)

Dumbest Headline of the Day, as the Afghanistan Speech Looms



Obama Faces Risk of Wartime Presidency” — so reads the headline on a CNN commentary by Princeton professor Julian Zelizer.  I have no quarrel with most of it — the professor provides a useful and balanced review of how “war sucks the political oxygen out of almost any presidency,” citing LBJ and the Great Society, Truman’s long-forgotten domestic agenda, et cetera.  But the headline…

Authors (except for bloggers!) normally don’t get to write their own headlines, and I was inclined to cut the good professor some slack, but a variation of the jaw-dropping headline is in his text as well.  With his anticipated decision to send more troops to Afghanistan, Zelizer writes, “Obama inches closer to becoming a wartime president.”

Gracious.  At the risk of belaboring the gob-smackingly obvious, Mr. Obama became a wartime president on January 20.  If you don’t want to be a wartime president, don’t run for the office while America is prosecuting an Iraq WAR, an Afghanistan WAR, and a broader Global WAR on Terrorism (although they seem to have redefined that one out of existence).

The true risk, and the reason some of us favored John McCain for the role of Commander-in-Chief, is that Obama and many Democrats seem intent on convincing us that America is NOT at war.  This is why the indefensible decision to treat Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as a criminal, rather than as an enemy, is so appalling.

I’ll necessarily be away from the television tonight when the president lays out his plan for Afghanistan, but I’m setting the DVR to record, and I suspect I’ll watch it before my head hits the pillow tonight.  Earlier in his term, President Obama showed at least an occasional ability to put pragmatism ahead of partisanship when it comes to foreign policy.  I’m clinging to the hope that he will begin to do so again tonight, regarding the conflict he rightly called “a war of necessity.”

I’m not so much worried about the number of troops.  If Obama authorizes 30,000 instead of the 40,000 that his hand-picked general requested, I don’t see that as a half measure — it’s quite a bit more than half.  What I’m looking for tonight is a sense of commitment to victory.

Step up tonight, Mr. President.  The troops are counting on you.  America is counting on you.


Support the War, Mr. President — It’s Personal

Harry on his way to the Nimitz from my back yard in New Jersey.  He subsequently got his third green stripe.

Harry on his way to the Nimitz from my back yard in New Jersey. He subsequently got his third green stripe.

Update: Welcome, readers from Navy For Moms (in the comments),  Maplewood Patch and Maplewoodian.  (I love the Internets!)

Updated update: Welcome, New York Times readers! It’s a Maplewood BlogolopolisTM trifecta!

Candidate Obama called Afghanistan “the war we need to win.”  Just last week, President Obama vowed to “finish the job.”  In a prime-time speech on Tuesday evening, he intends to announce his plans for prosecuting the war, including whether he will supply the 40,000 additional troops requested by his hand-picked general, Stanley McChrystal.

Prominent conservatives, pundits, and even a key foreign ally have all accused Obama of “dithering” over his decision, and thereby weakening troop morale and public support for the war.  I share these frustrations to some degree, but I think it is still possible to turn the situation around with decisive leadership.  The big question is whether such leadership will occur.

I’ve been a continuous supporter of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq from the beginning, and now I’ve got a personal reason. Last month, my son Harry reported for duty on the USS Nimitz (CVN 68), currently somewhere in the Indian Ocean in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.  (Obviously, Harry is not responsible for his father’s opinions about his commander in chief.)

The Nimitz, the oldest of America’s 10 Nimitz-class nuclear powered aircraft carriers, has been in service since 1968, making it about 20 years older than Harry.  With a complement of more than 4,000, it’s a small floating city — the carrier’s welcome brochure notes that the Nimitz features a dental facility with five dentists (which seems like a lot, given the population).  When he gets off duty, Harry usually goes to the gym or the library, where he can send emails from his military account.


Aviation Boatswain's Mate insignia

Harry, currently an E-3 Airman, is working toward promotion to petty officer as an Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Equipment) — the folks who operate and maintain the catapults, arresting gear and other mission-critical equipment, enabling the aircraft to take off and land successfully.  He works long hours, but likes the work and the people around him.

He’s already suffered his first “war wound” — two stitches on the top of his head for a gash caused when he stood up too quickly while he was, I kid you not, swabbing the deck.  Joking aside, there are real dangers involved in tending the powerful launching and recovery equipment, but I’m grateful that I don’t have to worry much about an enemy attack.

President Obama, the brave men and women of the United States armed forces are looking to see if you are committed to victory in Afghanistan.  On Tuesday evening, I hope you’ll start showing them that you are.

Harry, be safe, and thank you for your service.