Barack Obama, facilitator-in-chief

Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, has returned from Afghanistan having found “reasons for hope” in the war there. O’Hanlon is, I believe, a somewhat left-of-center analyst. As such, he was able, along with Kenneth Pollack, to provide credibility to administration claims that the Iraq surge was making major headway, when he returned from Iraq three years ago.
This time, O’Hanlon’s report is more guarded, arguing mainly that “several recent critiques paint only part of the picture and they are often more wrong than right unless presented with greater nuance.” The best O’Hanlon can conclude is that “on balance, we have many assets and strengths in Afghanistan — and better than even odds of leaving behind a reasonably stable place if we persevere.”
But that’s the rub. President Obama has sent strong signals that we will not persevere, but instead will start retreating from the battle a year from now. O’Hanlon attempts to downplay this problem, but admits he has opposed the deadline.
O’Hanlon says we may persevere in spite of the deadline and various administration pronouncements about its seriousness. But it’s not enough that we persevere; we must also be perceived in advance as prepared to persevere. Otherwise, we cannot expect Afghans to cast their lot with us.
Unfortunately, Obama’s plan is a lawyerly settlement that depends on not sending a clear signal that we will stay the course. Obama offered the military a deal under which we would escalate our effort in Afghanistan and he offered the left a timetable for leaving. Unless Obama is willing to scuttle his plan, and incur the wrath of the left, he cannot provide the clarity necessary to cash in on O’Hanlon’s better than even odds that we will leave Afghanistan “a reasonably safe place.”
There are many differences between the 2007 surge in Iraq and the 2010 offensive in Afghanistan. Perhaps the most important one is this — in 2007, we had a commander-in-chief whereas in 2010 we have a facilitator-in-chief.

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