I have a long list of topics I could write about but the one that is in my craw right now is the President’s address two nights ago regarding a way forward in Afghanistan. A group of us watched it at school, largely as a study break.
In short, it sounded like a much more coherent explanation of what we are already doing in Afghanistan, but with more emphasis on elements such as diplomacy, partnerships, and building civilian capacity. It was a nice change of pace from the might-makes-right justifications and hyperbole to which we’ve been subjected the last seven years.
Admittedly, it’s a tough decision to double down in Afghanistan. We’ve spent time, blood and treasure in Iraq with little to show for it but a flailing government and promise that we will leave in a few years, as the previous administration (and this one thus far) failed to secure a Status of Forces Agreement. Make no mistake, any current claims that we are on pace to withdraw from Iraq have more to do with the fact that Iraq told us we can’t stay. We are tired of war and the strain of the recession. We want less burdens right now, not more.
Still, reinforcing our effort in Afghanistan is the right move, and the President’s highlighting the goal is to become a partner as opposed to a patron is spot on. It was also interesting to see so much emphasis put on Pakistan, the fear of extremists obtaining nuclear material now that it is a nuclear state, and how our national security is linked with progress in both countries. This appears to be much more thought out and strategic than the simplistic and bumper-sticker-friendly “Wanted Dead or Alive” approach.
I found it interesting to hear Obama say that the days of a blank check, regarding US involvement were over. Doubtful. If we really want a stable Afghanistan, we’ll pay for it because in the end, it’s not just about driving out the bad guys and getting more civilians involved. You have to change a culture, and that is a lot harder to do. All the diplomacy in the world, hard or soft, will not accomplish this quickly or cheaply. In fact, when Obama talked about the future he expects this strategy to create, and how it has to be measured against a “reasonable cost,” I immediately remembered the quote that flashes on the screen at the end of the movie, Charlie Wilson’s War: "These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world... and then we fucked up the end game." If we repeat the past mistake of wanting something but not being willing ot pay for it, we will get the same result. I’m not advocating a blank check approach, and I believe certain decision should be based on measurable goals. However, be real. Look how much time and money we spent in Asia and Europe in the last sixty years. We need that same long-term commitment – in time, material, and money – if we want something similar in Asia Minor.
And I doubt it will happen. The approach Obama laid out is anathema to a lot of people, people who don’t want him in his current job and who were content with the Bush administration’s approach. Though one has to wonder, had McCain won and delivered this same speech, what kind of support would he receive? What if the African American president delivering that speech were Colin Powell? How ready would everyone be to rally behind the vision and commit their all to it? I imagine it would have been an easier sell.
So again, I think the approach is right, though I still take issue with some of the rhetoric. (eg: “That’s why I’m asking the hard questions.” Yeah, because no one has done that before you.) I’m happy to see more “we will win because we are right,” than “we will win because of might.” I just fear a lack of willingness to be in it for the long haul and the messenger himself will hamstring the whole thing.