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October 29th, 2009 - 9:46 am

The German magazine Spiegel writes pleadingly of the need for President Obama to provide more “leadership” on Afghanistan. It is one of several European newspapers that are wondering: what’s up?

Afghanistan and Pakistan are being shaken by attacks, and the Taliban is dictating the course of the war. US President Obama has been silent about the situation for far too long and European countries like Germany and France are correct to demand better American leadership on the issue of Afghanistan.

The most important piece of news from the most recent meeting of NATO defense ministers was that there was no news. …

For once, this hesitation cannot be attributed to widespread war fatigue in Europe. The mission in Afghanistan is seen as a toxic issue in all Western nations, and every government that has provided troops has come under sharp criticism at home. What the US’s NATO allies now find far more irritating is US President Barack Obama’s silence on the issue.

The world has been waiting for clear words from the White House for months. Obama has had government and military analysts studying the military and political situation in the embattled Hindu Kush region since early January. He appointed Richard Holbrooke, probably the US’s most effective diplomat in crisis situations, to be his special envoy to the “AfPak” region, he has replaced generals and he has deployed more troops. The answers Obama asked his experts to provide after taking office have been sitting on his desk for a long time. But the conclusions vary. Obama will have to make his own decision, one that will shape his political fate.

The UK Times wrote an article along the same lines. Compared to Barack Obama, it wrote, Gordon Brown was the model of decisiveness. Given that Brown is widely derided in the UK, that translates to “how can you fall lower than whale****”.

A remarkable headline on an opinion piece about Afghanistan in The New York Times, following an interview with David Miliband: “Britain resolves, US wavers”. If the American press can look to policy on Afghanistan on this side of the Atlantic and see relative determination, vision and clarity of purpose, then things in Washington must be dire indeed.

It is now two months since General Stanley McCrystal, the commander of US and allied forces in Afghanistan, told President Obama that a surge of at least 40,000 troops was required for the international mission in that country to succeed. Mr Obama is not obliged to follow his recommendation, but he is obliged to do something other than sit on his own hands. “I will never rush the solemn decision of sending you into harm’s way,” Mr Obama told the military, in a speech this week. This is not an unattractive sentiment. There is deliberation, nonetheless, and then there is dragging one’s feet.

Now is not a time for a president to dither. Yesterday, a Taleban suicide squad stormed a United Nations guesthouse in Kabul, leaving six international staff dead and nine injured. The Taleban do not carry out such attacks at random. They understand well the context in which they act, and do so in order to sway a decision that they believe can be swayed …

In war, morale matters. Coalition troops must risk death every day, without knowing what their ultimate purpose is, whether that purpose will change, or even if they have one at all. The resignation in September, but revealed this week, of Matthew Hoh, a senior US official, is a sympton of drift and despair. Mr Hoh is a former Marine captain, and was cited for “uncommon bravery” in Iraq. “My resignation is based not on how we are pursuing this war,” he said, “but why, and to what end.” Only Mr Obama can answer that question, and he must do so soon.

“Only Mr Obama can answer that question, and he must do so soon.” But what is the question? And what is soon? President Obama’s inaction seem incomprehensible according to the normal “rational actor” models which are used to predict behavior. That’s what has got the op-ed writers scratching their heads. Since they aren’t privy to what a politician thinks, what newspaper pundits do is put themselves in his place.  And that normally works, but on rare occasions a politician starts doing something so completely unexpected and does so consistently for such a period that analysts begin to conclude that either the politician is behaving abnormally (“indecisive”, “paralyzed”, “agonizing”) with respect to his interests or they begin to suspect they have left a major factor out of the reckoning. The first indicates the pundits have misunderstood the man, the second suggests they have misunderstood the situation.

The classic deductive solution to the problem of unaccountable effects was the discovery of Neptune.  Neptune was discovered because the orbit of the planet Uranus was discovered to be behaving oddly. Neptune was found to be there because it had to be there, given Uranus’ funny antics.

Neptune is the only planet in the Solar System whose existence was mathematically predicted before it was directly observed. By 1846, the planet Uranus had completed nearly one full orbit since its discovery by William Herschel in 1781, and astronomers had detected a series of irregularities in its path which could not be entirely explained by Newton’s law of gravitation. These irregularities could, however, be resolved if the gravity of a farther, unknown planet were disturbing its path around the Sun. That year, astronomers Urbain Le Verrier in Paris and John Couch Adams in Cambridge separately began calculations to determine the nature and position of such a planet.

People normally “drag their feet” if they are waiting for something to turn up. Some kind of timing issue, some development, some process in the background is being resolved. In the meantime an idle thread is being spun out to await the knock on the door. If that’s the case, there is an unseen presence in the policy room which nobody is yet openly aware of.  We don’t understand the situation. Or maybe the Spiegel and the Times are right. The President just has a hard time making up his mind. We just don’t understand the man.


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