Wednesday, June 22, 2011
Politically, the tone and the content of this speech seemed just about right. Immediately afterwards, those who advocate faster withdrawal from Afghanistan complained that the President's plan will not withdraw the troops fast enough. Those with a more hawkish view complained that it might be dangerous to ignore the advice of some generals, and not give them all the troops they want. Perhaps that means everyone will be unhappy with the President's approach. I think it more likely that those who want to leave quickly will at least be satisfied with the general direction, even if they are frustrated with the slow pace of withdrawal. Those who want to stay and fight will at least be satisfied that we are not leaving recklessly or precipitously, even if they are worried we don't have sufficient manpower. And those who are not sure what we should be doing--which if we were honest, should be most of us--should be reassured that we are choosing a middle course. People should also feel reassured that since the President announced what we were doing in Afghanistan a couple of years ago, he has proceeded pretty much according to that plan. In other words, in conducting foreign military operations, it's important politically that we not run into any unpleasant surprises. I have watched a number of presidents from LBJ to GBW, have to tell the people that military operations will take longer or cost more than expected. And it's never a good thing for them or us when they have to do that. Since Barack Obama took office, on the other hand, we have not encountered any serious military setbacks in Iraq, in Afghanistan, or elsewhere. If you can put aside the noisy critics on both left and right, that fact should be tremendously reassuring to the vast majority of people.
President Obama used this theme of taking the middle course at another point in the speech where he contrasted his whole approach to foreign affairs with those who, on the one hand, want to isolate the United States from the world, and on the other hand, those who want to be the world's policeman. This approach probably appeals to an even broader swath of public opinion, since there probably aren't all that many of us who believe that the most powerful nation in the world can completely retreat into its own shell, and there also probably aren't that many who want to send in the troops to deal with every trouble spot in the world. Most everyone else understands that we have to choose our battles carefully.
As for Afghanistan itself, it seems clear we are going to have a presence there for a long time. And that's probably a good thing, if for no other reason that we need a good vantage point to keep an eye on many troubling developments in Pakistan. In the 1980's, we set up camp in Pakistan to assist the future Taliban in fighting the Soviet Union. Now we have set up what looks like a permanent camp in Afghanistan to keep the Taliban out of power there, and to try to prevent Pakistan from drifting further toward fundamentalism. Most people should understand that we can't just walk away--we did that once before and it did not work out well for us. And we also can't escalate too much--at some point the presence of a foreign occupying force becomes counter-productive. Therefore, it's hard to see a realistic alternative to a middle course.