Obama and Afghanistan — different country, same cynicism

In an Examiner column earlier this month — “War and Peace and the Democrats” — I showed how four successive Democratic presidential candidates have allowed political calculation to enter into, and in some cases even govern, their position[s] on the vital question of putting and/or keeping U.S. troops in harm’s way. In all four cases, my focus was on Iraq. For Clinton and Gore it was their stance on the first war; for Kerry and Obama it was their stance on the second. Of the four candidates, I argued, Barack Obama has been the most shifty and the most cynical.

Obama does not come off much better when we change our focus to Afghanistan. Here, Obama’s position is that we need to add several brigades of troops to the battle. But is this position based on (a) an analysis of the situation on the ground in Afghanistan or (b) the desire to counter-balance his largely dovish current position on Iraq (itself a balancing act) by appearing tough with regard to another country where terrorists are active?

This column by Ann Marlowe in the Wall Street Journal of July 22 suggests that the answer is (b). Marlowe has been to Afghanistan ten times, three of them as an embed with U.S. forces. She argues that the situation in Afghanistan differs markedly from that in Iraq, such that an Iraq style surge is not called for. In Afghanistan, she argues, the military solution does not lie in importing thousands of additional U.S. troops, but rather in using special forces to deal with the “bad guys” who are infiltrating from Pakistan. This means hunting them with stealth over trackless mountainsides for which our infantry, cavalry, and airborne soldiers are not trained to operate. In short, says Marlowe, “defeating the enemy is best accomplished by highly trained fighters who travel light.”

Obama’s support for a different approach does not by itself show that’s he’s operating in bad faith. But Marlowe notes that Obama has never set foot in Afghanistan. That fact, coupled with the debatable nature of his prescription for winning there, coupled with the obvious political calculation that underlies his shifting views on Iraq, gives rise to the suspicion that (in the words of the subtitle of Marlowe”s column in the print version) Obama is attempting to “fix his Iraq mistake by posing tough” in Afghanistan. The suspicion grows when one considers that Obama has never convincingly reconciled his alleged desire to throw more troops into battle in Afghanistan, where the situation isn’t nearly as dire as it was pre-surge in Iraq, with his utter lack of interest in attempting to avoid (pre-surge) a terrorist victory and a humanitarian disaster in Iraq. Only political calculation seems capable of comfortably bridging this gap.

In any case, it’s difficult to quarrel with Marlowe’s conclusion that “a would-be commander in chief who announces his prescription for Afghanistan before setting foot there has a lot to learn about America’s top job.”

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