False choice or false alternative?

President Obama said at a news conference today that he will “finish the job” in Afghanistan:

After eight years, some of those years in which we did not have, I think, either the resources or the strategy to get the job done, it is my intention to finish the job.

Obama added that he plans to announce his new course of action for the war after Thanksgiving. The rumor is that he will do so in a prime time address next Tuesday.
Obama’s statement indicates that, as expected, he will increase our troop level in Afghanistan. The consensus seems to be that he will add 20,000 to 40,000 troops. General McChrystal has asked for 40,000. Obama reportedly has been tinkering with McChrystal’s proposal in an effort to develop a plan that will commit fewer than 40,000 new troops.
It’s difficult to see what Obama would gain by sending, say, 30,000 or 35,000 additional troops, rather the 40,000 recommended by McChrystal. If Obama is going to add troops, it is clearly in his interest to add enough to “finish the job.” In theory, it’s possible that someone has come up with a sure-fire way to win the war on-the-cheap — i.e., with fewer troops than McChrystal says he needs — but it would be foolish for Obama to bet on this.
Moreover, complying with McChrystal’s request gives Obama cover. If he holds back 5,000 or 10,000 troops and things don’t go well, he’ll be vulnerable to criticism that if he had listened to his hand-picked commander, things might well have gone better. If he follows McChrystal’s recommendation, he avoids that line of attack. And if, as is likely, he decides to pull out of Afghanistan in the event of failure, he can argue that he gave us every chance to succeed.
What, then, would Obama gain by scrimping on troops? Nothing, as far as I can tell. The left will still be unhappy with him for escalating at all.
Obama loves to talk about false choices. “Escalation lite” may strike Obama as a way to avoid a false choice, but it seems more like a false alternative.
UPDATE: This post focuses mainly on the politics of Obama’s impending decision. As to the merits, Max Boot makes the point that if Obama sends “substantially fewer troops than Gen. McChrystal wants, he risks perpetuating the sense of malaise” among our troops who will continue to believe “they [are] essentially fighting a holding action without the capacity to achieve decisive results.”

Responses