Thursday, December 3, 2009
Afghanistan is President Barack Obama's Tar Baby, How Will He Free Us? How Will He Free Himself?
Heavy is the head that wears the crown. As a fan of Robert E. Howard's legendary character Conan the Barbarian, I am sure that President Obama will appreciate the allusion.
President Obama's speech on the war in Afghanistan reveals a man whose presidency is eerily reminiscent of that of the Johnson administration--men of bold vision domestically, yet tarnished by a failed war abroad. I have watched with great concern and relative silence over these last few months as Obama has committed misstep after misstep in the formulation of his Afghanistan policy. As a strong supporter of President Obama, I stood mute. I convinced myself that Obama is playing such a deep game that success awaits us if we only stay the course.
I watched Obama's speech on Tuesday with a raised eyebrow and an attentive ear. Ultimately, there is no way to elegantly parse the conclusion which I reached: We are in one hell of a mess. Sadly, I no longer believe that success, either domestically or internationally, is a Fait accompli under Obama's leadership.
Economically, we are an empire in decline. In many ways, America is the British Empire of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We believe that we are too big to fail, an indispensable power in the world, while we simultaneously maintain a bloated empire that we cannot extradite ourselves from. Like the Brits in their twilight, we no longer have a manufacturing base as we have chosen to build wealth on the shadows and mirrors of finance, speculation, and credit.
Ironically, the world itself has signaled that they too are unprepared for a world where America does not lead--yet, our peers and friends seem either unwilling or unable to take up the slack. Domestically, Obama has been too much a centrist, too willing to compromise. He needed to put on the brass knuckles many months ago. Instead, Obama chose to proceed with a conciliatory way, extending his hand to his foes while wearing a silk glove. Predictably, the Republicans and right wing populists saw compromise as weakness and chose to play the role of obstructionists.
Perhaps unavoidably, there have been many missteps in the formulation of Obama's Afghanistan policy. He has let himself be bullied by the military. Obama has been contemplative and patient while gathering the necessary information for making what is a life and death decision both for his administration (and its legacy), for this country (and our future), and for the young men and women who are the tip of the sword in Afghanistan (and who will live and die as a function of Obama's continuation of Bush era policies). Not surprisingly, Commander-in-Chief Obama was greeted by a military establishment that publicly lobbied for their own agenda and disagreed with the president's policies. Simply put, if Truman found the courage to fire Douglas MacArthur, the American Caesar, surely, Obama could have dismissed General McChrystal and those others who went public, thus revealing that they did not respect the chain of command.
While America is rightfully focused on terrorism and Al-Qaeda as threats to our safety and security, realpolitik tells us that Bin Laden and his terror franchise are not a threat to the existence of this country. At present, our greatest foe is a radically diminished standard of living caused by capitalism and finance run amok, where a politics of greed that traded long term prosperity for short term gain has been the dagger in our heart.
It is not a suicide bomber operating out of the hinterlands of Pakistan or Afghanistan that will undo us. No, it is the economic terror of the Great Recession. If we do not act rightly, with more expediency and more vigor, it will not be homicide bombers, dirty bombs, shoe bombs, asymmetrical warfare, or a failed counter-insurgency strategy--a new language, a panoply of buzz words and phrases that have recently infiltrated our 21st century lexicon--that will be listed as agent number one on our national epitaph. Rather, it will be the Great Recession that placed the last nail in America's proverbial coffin. As a qualifier, I would reiterate that like most empires, our decline will be be both long and slow. This fall will not be immediately attributable to any one factor. Nevertheless, we stand at a crossroads in our own history. I fear that Obama has taken the wrong fork--one that will lead us to inevitable ruin.
Mr. President, I understand that you are in a lose-lose position. If you choose to withdraw from Afghanistan you will be lambasted from the right and the center. If you escalate, as you have chosen to, you will lose progressives as you pursue a policy that is in many ways juxtaposed to the theme of "change" which you campaigned upon. I do not envy the decisions that have been forced upon you--or more rightfully put--a set of burdens that you chose to hoist upon your own shoulders when you made the decision to run for President.
President Obama, like so many, I have and continue to support you because of your dignity and intelligence. The critical and reflective manner that typifies your decision making process is a breath of fresh air when compared to your predecessor.
For this, you are a credit to us all.
With that having been said, I appeal to your intellect and intelligence. Ask yourself again, as I am sure you have, can America really and truly reconcile the history of Afghanistan--a country affectionately known as the graveyard of empires--with our policy goals? In a time of economic crisis can America afford the 1 million dollars a year per soldier, the expense of keeping one soldier in Afghanistan, when we are bleeding money at home? President Obama, I implore you to review Dwight D. Eisenhower's prescient speech on the military industrial complex. Ask yourself, "how many homes could 1 million dollars save?" "How many children could be fed?" "How many people could be employed?" "How many schools could be built?"
Mr. President, as a student of history you most certainly know that America will be in Afghanistan longer than the time period that you have suggested. This is unavoidable. All that I ask for is honesty, a fair deal, and a transparent conversation with the American people where you ask them the following questions: Are they prepared for the steady stream of coffins that will slowly trickle back to Dover in order to follow through with an unsustainable policy of nation building in Afghanistan? Is it worth it?
President Obama, Afghanistan is your personal tar baby now. How will you free yourself, and this country, from its sticky grasp?