Obama and Afghanistan: What A Downer


The verdict is in: everyone is unhappy, or at least uncomfortable, with President Obama’s plan for Afghanistan. Reactions ranged from the typical delusions of National Review to the wounded hopes of many progressives who hoped that Obama would do something, anything  other than escalate.

I generally try not to get too invested in the foreign policy decisions of my favorite American politicians. For a confluence of reasons—the sanctity of the military being chief among them—it is almost impossible for an American politician to get to a place of influence and power while holding views congruous with those on the left-wing of the progressive movement. War as a legitimate projection of American interests has been with us consistently through presidents of both parties. Even the “liberal hour” presidents of the 1960s played the reactionary role held by Russian czars in the 1800s, aggressively attempting to stamp out revolution wherever it sprang up, from Cuba to Vietnam.  Their reactionary foreign policy undercut social reforms, funneling money away from the War on Poverty, among other worthy programs, and destroying the legitimacy of presidents who were actually quite liberal on the home front.

Obama’s commitment of an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan raises similar concerns among today’s progressives, who watched President Obama’s Tuesday night with trepidation. Unfortunately, his speech did little to allay these fears.

The best that can be said of Obama’s speech is that he did his predecessor one better (not a high bar, I admit), because he acknowledged that wars actually cost money ("We can't simply afford to ignore the cost of these wars"). That shouldn't be an accomplishment, but it is. Conservatives like to whine about the deficit, but they largely place the blame on social programs and “big government.”  But in reality, one of the primary sources of our massive deficit is our outrageously high military spending. The United States is responsible for close to half of the world’s military spending, outstripping our closest national competitor by 40 percent. Our multi-year commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq have only exacerbated these trends, yet few prominent politicians have admitted how impossibly expensive they have become—close to a trillion dollars combined. However, Obama did not mention the war surtax advocated by House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, a policy proposal which would have the wealthiest five percent pay for the troop increase. Without a plan to pay, acknowledgment of the war’s costs (up to $30 billion a year by recent estimates) only gets you so far.

The speech also included all my least favorite rhetorical flourishes: vague allusions to freedom, homage to American exceptionalism, and an almost mythical understanding of our place in the world (“We are still heirs to a noble struggle for freedom,” etc.). Obama comes off better when he doesn't sound like Bush-lite. Rhetoric like this is inescapable in foreign policy debate, but Obama’s earlier speeches tended to tone it down, and with good reason. It tends to make other countries uncomfortable; when American presidents start talking up freedom, the rest of the world expects the  bombing to intensify accordingly.

As for the war itself, Obama had a lengthy list of goals that sounded like a vague blueprint for any reconstruction effort: Prepare Afghani soldiers and police for future responsibility, root out corruption, boost agricultural output. But the speech was light on specifics. Obama didn't provide any evidence that the Afghan military will be remotely functional any time in the near future, and he didn't mention that Hamid Karzai, our man in Kabul, is at the head of one of the most corrupt governments in the world. Obama also didn't provide any hints about how he plans to move Afghanistan towards non-opiate agriculture, particularly considering the fact that the country is going to be a battlefield for the foreseeable future.  These goals and the others that Obama enumerated sound awfully familiar. Didn’t we try something like this under similar circumstances in Vietnam? That worked out well. Of course, in this case, the alternative isn’t too palatable either. If the NATO forces leave before a legitimate government is established Afghanistan will be left in the hands of one of the most conservative socio-political groups on the planet.

But that’s the problem with long-term foreign intervention and nation-building of this nature: it usually ends in a tortured choice between horrible options. This is particularly true in Afghanistan, where the entire edifice of U.S. intervention has been neglected for years. Worse still, the situation in Afghanistan will likely become one of the defining issues of Obama's presidency.  This war won’t be as morally corrosive as Lyndon B. Johnson’s Vietnam, but it will still drain much needed attention, political capital, and, most importantly, money from the country Obama should, by his own admission, be rebuilding: our own.

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