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Works and Days

Obama vs. Obama

August 24th, 2009 - 7:59 am

Actions often have unforeseen consequences. Throughout the campaign and the first few months of the new administration, Barack Obama adopted a number of personas and positions that only now may be coming back to haunt him. Or in the words of the right Reverend Wright the proverbial “chickens are coming home to roost.”

1) The Wars

Obama and the Democrats once understandably figured that the war in Afghanistan was nearly won (between 2002-5 fewer of our soldiers were dying in an entire year there than in a single bloody month in Iraq), while (to quote Harry Reid) Iraq was already “lost.” Obama, like most, not only opposed the surge, but claimed it would be counterproductive.

In contrast, Obama promised that he’d be tough in Afghanistan, pursue enemies hotly into Pakistan, and not take “his eye off the ball” of the theater as did Bush. “Let me at ‘em” was the mood (sort of like the cartoon character who swings furiously and wildly at the air while his larger companion holds him up by the scruff of the neck.)

Remember that in early 2007 when Obama was beginning his campaign, Afghanistan was still thought of as the “good” war—UN approved, mostly quiet with few fatalities (e.g., 59 in all of 2005), and directly linked with the Taliban, 9/11, and Osama bin Laden.

Iraq, in contrast, was the thoroughly bad war—and became even messier as the controversial surge peaked fatalities.  Remember the “General Betray Us” ads?

Iraq was seen as George Bush’s albatross, as the once supportive Democrats (cf. the Democratic pluralities who voted to authorize the war in the October 10-11, 2002 votes) had long ago bailed. A wild-eyed public that polled 79% in favor of the war in May 2003 (despite the daily media blaring that there were no weapons of mass destruction), by 2006 was polling only 35% in favor.  By 2006 and 2008 the opposition to the Iraqi war was Democratic manna—especially as Obama and others in contrast sought national security cover in chest-thumping about Afghanistan. Remember the Obama promise to bring all combat brigades home from Iraq by “March 31, 2008”?

But there were a few problems.

1)   By inauguration, Iraq was already on the road to being saved. This year far more have been killed in Afghanistan than in Iraq; five Americans were lost so far this month in Iraq; 57 in Afghanistan—ten times the losses of the former!

2) the problem with “surging” is now not Bush’s Iraq version which worked, but Obama’s necessary Afghan reinforcement whose efficacy remains to be seen;

3) Obama and the Democrats may have not grasped that security and consensual government in Afghanistan were always the tougher propositions—a country landlocked, with harsh weather, difficult terrain, an illiterate populace, and poor, nuclear Pakistan next door; while Iraq was always the more viable—ports, oil, vital location, easy terrain and access, greater numbers of secular and literate citizenry;

4) Yes, Afghanistan was directly linked to 9/11. But if the ‘war on terror’ was really about radical Islam and its nexus with sponsoring Middle East tyrants and autocracies, then the removal of Saddam would cause in its own right positive ripples in a rather wider region. Iran, for example, was not perennially “empowered” by our removal of Saddam, as the conventional wisdom insisted the last six years. In fact, Ahmadinejad may be now threatened by the idea of a Shiite-majority democracy nearby, one that conducts itself in a fashion that is ipso facto destabilizing to its nearby theocratic cousin and its millions of the unhappy. Iranian popular angst increased after the fostering of Iraqi democracy.

Bottom line? Obama—rightfully so—committed himself to winning a good war in Afghanistan, and now he must accomplish what was a far more challenging proposition than he ever imagined.  His doom-and-gloom assertions about Iraq proved wrong, and now in turn he must oversee what may well turn out to be a George Bush-inspired successful constitutional government in the heart of the ancient caliphate.

It is true that the liberal media will give Obama far more leeway (note how violence in Afghanistan and Iraq are not so much on the front pages as in the Bush years; and note how Hollywood will produce no more movies like Rendition or Valley of Elah about an unpopular war). In addition, the anti-war left—for now—will go easier on kindred Commander-in-Chief Obama. The Democrats in Congress, of course, will become suddenly be pro-war in Afghanistan as they were once anti-Bush on Iraq.  But all that said, again, Afghanistan won’t be easy. Security and a stable Afghan consensual government will mean Obama cannot vote present. As the casualties mount, so will the left-wing base agitate to galvanize public opinion against the war—and the media will make the necessary adjustments.

Conclusion? Obama should have never blustered about our supposedly hopeless situation in Iraq and his own eagerness to escalate in Afghanistan. Now we expect him to reify his campaign rhetoric. But he cannot easily wish to flee Iraq and turn victory into defeat there; nor easily surge in Afghanistan and have that once good war become Obama’s messy own.

2) Race

Obama could have downplayed identity politics, and stayed true to his message of racial irrelevance—despite the temptation of hyping the novelty and mystique of his heritage and of tapping the ever present font of white guilt. He could have run as a Colin Powell/Condoleezza Rice-like figure  who saw race as incidental, never essential to his persona.

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