I just read Obama's speech from last night on the escalation in Afghanistan; given the depressing nature of the material, I decided that it wasn't worth not going to the gym to watch it live.
I was adamantly against the escalation, seeing it as another sad perpetuation of our national policy of "when in doubt, choose more war" at a time when we particularly can't afford it and in a place where success is particularly unlikely. But I have to admit that the other choices on the table--withdrawal or perpetuating the status quo--are pretty much every bit as bad as escalating. Withdrawal means condemning that country to yet more open-ended misery, with the Taliban likely taking over again and women in particular facing nightmarish repression and torment. The status quo means that the Karzai-led kleptocracy muddles through for however much longer American and NATO troops are there to protect his crooked ass--and probably just defers the moment of decision.
So we'll try to force the issue. Andrew Sullivan seems to think that the notion here is to give the military basically what it wants, hope it works, and withdraw if it doesn't.
Obama was saying last night is that he is determined to return America to normal, to unplug this vast attempt at global control in Muslim countries that Bush and Cheney unleashed. He is trying to unwind the empire, not expand it.
How best to unwind the empire? By giving McChrystal what he wants and giving him a couple of years to deliver tangible results. If McChrystal delivers, fantastic. I will do a ritual self-flagellation and bow down to the man with no body-fat and a close relationship with 33 Kagans of various generations and genders. If McChrystal does his best and we still get nowhere, Obama will have demonstrated - not argued, demonstrated - that withdrawal is the least worst option.
The far right will accuse him of weakness - but they will do that anyway. All he need do is remind Americans of what the far right version of "strength" is: engaging an enemy on his own turf, sustaining an insurgency by our very presence, draining the Treasury of trillions, sacrificing more young men and women to shore up one of the most corrupt governments on earth, and basically returning to Bush-Cheney land. And that will be a very telling argument in 2012: do we want to go back to Cheneyism? To torture and endless occupation and a third war with a Muslim nation, Iran?
On reflection, Obama was saying something quite simple: one more try, guys. We owe it to those who have sacrificed already to try and finish the job. He has given the effort the full resources it needs at a time of real scarcity. He has given COIN doctrine one more chance to prove itself. He has put Petraeus and McChrystal and the 45 Kagans on notice: prove your case. And in this, I think Obama has found a middle balance that reflects where a lot of us are on this and that also offers a good faith chance for progress - with a good sense exit ramp after a reasonable length of time.
Maybe he's right, but my problem with it is that our politics don't really allow any president to be rational when it comes to "losing a war." In 2011, Obama will be starting his reelection campaign. If things are continuing to go to crap in Afghanistan, will he really begin a withdrawal? I just don't see it. Rahm Emanuel among others will make the case, echoing Lyndon Johnson, that the electorate will "forgive you for everything except being weak." Sullivan, and by extension Obama, posits a far more rational version of America than the one I perceive.
The one thing that could possibly upend this dynamic is the growing realization that we can't afford it. Democrats who are anti-war anyway, people like David Obey, are already getting on this train (and--not that my opinion particularly matters to anyone but me--it's a big part of my objection to the escalation); by 2011, as millions of Baby Boomers start to hit retirement age, some Republicans who for whatever reason can't call for huge cuts to entitlements might be there with them. The growing realization that our resources are finite and our finances aren't divinely assured of eternal solvency might be the factor that forces us into a rational assessment of costs and benefits.
But that's just a guess at what the tenor of public debate might be in eighteen months, as two political memes--the old chestnut that a president can't lose a war, and the upstart notion that a president can't blow the budget--directly collide. By then, this will be our longest war, ever.