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Belmont Club

“The Way Forward”

June 23rd, 2011 - 11:22 am

President Barack Obama has begun the process of withdrawal from Afghanistan, an undertaking he called the War of Necessity in 2009.  Then the need to win in Afghanistan made it imperative to draw down in Iraq.  President Obama said, “by moving forward in Iraq, we’re able to refocus on the war against al Qaeda and its extremist allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan”. Now the need to “focus on nation building at home” makes it necessary to withdraw from Afghanistan.

… we must invest in America’s greatest resource –- our people. We must unleash innovation that creates new jobs and industries, while living within our means. We must rebuild our infrastructure and find new and clean sources of energy. And most of all, after a decade of passionate debate, we must recapture the common purpose that we shared at the beginning of this time of war. For our nation draws strength from our differences, and when our union is strong no hill is too steep, no horizon is beyond our reach. America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home.

Unemployment, stagflation, deflation, inflation — you name it — the Four Horsemen of the Recession are riding out to do battle with the One. This is the new War of Necessity, at least if you want to stay in office after 2012.  Jennifer Rubin at the Washington Post had a roundup of reactions to the President’s speech. Most of them ask what most any observer might seek to know about a new project: ‘whatever happened to the old one?’  Especially when the old project made it important to curry favor with Pakistan and withdraw from Iraq in order to win?  Marco Rubio hit the nail on the head when asked how the planned withdrawal relate to winning in Afghanistan:

“After a decade of fighting, the American people are weary of war. Facing massive unemployment and a growing national debt, they are weary of the effort’s cost. So am I. But the answer to a bad situation is not to make it worse. And I have always believed that a troop withdrawal plan based not on progress towards our ultimate goal, but rather on a desire to hit certain numbers, would be a tragic mistake.

“Yes, American troops need to leave Afghanistan, but they should do so pursuant to a plan that accomplishes our vital goal. I hope that in the days to come, the President will more clearly articulate how his troop withdrawal plan does that.”

Poor Marco Rubio. He’s still asking someone who went to the store  if he has anything to show for the money he spent. You don’t ask questions like that any more. Rubio doesn’t realize that the withdrawal and victory are not necessarily related, any more than going through a checkout and having the goods you paid for in your hand are. You just walk through checkouts because strolling is pleasant.

“Winning” is no longer part of vocabulary of statesmanship. Neither is retreat. One pundit argued that President Obama just avoids calling things wars so that he can neither win nor lose.  Today it is all about touring along on the grand road to progress. Just as withdrawing from Iraq was “moving forward”, the President’s drawdown plan in Afghanistan was titled “the way forward”. But to the old-fashioned it is a retreat; and every American allies understands it clearly to be so. The Guardian reports that every ally will soon begin to leave.

The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who has 4,000 troops in Afghanistan, said: “France will begin a gradual withdrawal of reinforcement troops sent to Afghanistan, in a proportional manner and in a calendar comparable to the withdrawal of American reinforcements.”

The German defence minister, Guido Westerwelle, who has 4,800 troops in Afghanistan, echoed the French, saying he hoped “to be able to reduce our own troop contingent for the first time” by the end of the year. Poland, which has 2,500 troops, is also to reduce its presence this year, according to the country’s head of security, General Stanislaw Koziej.

It goes without saying that the 8th century Taliban will have also no trouble understanding that the “way forward” ==”retreat” and act accordingly. Hindered by the lack of modern political correctness, they will advance as their foes withdraw and achieve that illusory state of “victory” which modern statesmen are so dismissive of.  Unlike Western leaders who are their immeasurable superiors, the Taliban aim to get the hardtack and salt beef they paid for, and consequently they will.

Under other circumstances a withdrawal from Afghanistan might be a good thing if it allowed the US to refocus its resources on the real center of gravity of its enemies. But those too, alas seem to have vanished from the strategy-less landscape of Barack Obama. The possible transformation of Middle East into a virtual cauldron of Islamic states, the collapse of Yemen and the newly revealed perfidy of Pakistan — all earth-shaking events which have all occurred seemingly without mental impact on the President — are not fit foci for his effort.

Even the tactical question of withdrawal have been glossed over. JCS Chairman Mike Mullen testified that the reductions were “more aggressive and incur more risk” than was necessary. They are an extraordinary, but muted rebuke of the President’s decision, which as Robert Kagan at the Washington Post conveys that military leaders know that President Obama’s decision is a disaster.

Make no mistake, however. The entire military leadership believes the president’s decision is a mistake, and especially the decision to withdraw the remainder of the surge forces by September 2012. They will soldier on and do their best, but as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, put it, in characteristic understatement, they believe the decision will increase the risk to the troops and increase the chancethat the mission will not succeed. It bears repeating that the deadline imposed by the president has nothing to do with military or strategic calculation. It has everything to do with an electoral calculation. President Obama wants those troops out two months before Americans go to the voting booth.

But what is truly disastrous is not the withdrawal in itself, though that may be risky for both the retreating troops and to the supporters they have left behind. The actual catastrophe lies in the complete inability of the administration to pursue any kind of long term, strategically sound action policy. When considering any challenge it can weigh matters in only one balance: how to win the next election. Health care policy, international relations and military policy are all measured by this crude and self-serving yardstick.

This creates a very destructive decision rule which manifests itself as a low cunning that is paradoxically good at calculating at playing for baubles while oblivious to the destruction real value.  It is the politics of burning Van Goghs in the street for 5 minutes of bonfire warmth. It is a political attitude of utmost contempt toward the governed, based on the conviction that voters can always be persuaded to sell out their birthright for a “mess of pottage”. And sad to say it works often and well. Will Rogers once said that “the short memories of American voters is what keeps our politicians in office”. But every now and again a truly catastrophic President comes along who may give the voters enough to remember at the next election. Kagan says Obama’s withdrawal is as likely to blow up as anything he has tried. Now with his first term more than half over, all the cans that he has kicked down the road, rather than disappearing over the horizon may now be gathering in a massive dump on the road to 2012.

Dr. Peter Venkman: This city is headed for a disaster of biblical proportions.
Mayor: What do you mean, “biblical”?
Dr Ray Stantz: What he means is Old Testament, Mr. Mayor, real wrath of God type stuff.
Dr. Peter Venkman: Exactly.
Dr Ray Stantz: Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling!
Dr. Egon Spengler: Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes…
Winston Zeddemore: The dead rising from the grave!
Dr. Peter Venkman: Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!
Mayor: All right, all right! I get the point!

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