Belmont Club

Intent

Andy McCarthy at the NRO argues that unwavering conservative support for the campaign in Afghanistan should be given only if the President intends to “win” in some meaningful sense, but McCarthy believes that Barack Obama has no intention of winning the fight against Islamic extremism and is simply going through the motions. He therefore hesitates to lend his name to the call to back the campaign the Afghan campaign, because under those circumstances it would amount to backing a farce. McCarthy says:

Obama painted Afghanistan as the “good war,” but not because he actually thought it was good. … Now, having achieved power, Obama is responsible for the war he promised to fight and win. In theory, there’s at least a chance you could get him to fight it. It is important to bear in mind that Obama’s portrayal of the war is a fiction. … pretending that it is only happening in one place.

McCarthy charges that since in every other place Obama’s consistent strategy has been to undermine the conflict which began on September 11 while transfixing public attention on the one place where it is the “good war”, Afghanistan is just the pea under the shell in a scam. The audience should stop focusing on the pea and start watching the  scam.

Obama did what he could do to secure defeat in Iraq, and the final outcome there remains in doubt. And far from taking on the main culprit in Iran, he’s holding out an olive branch while the mullahs chuckle, build their nukes, and dispatch jihadists against American forces. Terrorist sympathizers, meanwhile, have assumed positions throughout the Obama administration, and — as the president apologizes to the world for the sins of American national defense — terrorists themselves are being released from custody.

He argues that if Obama is pursuing a strategy of appeasement, then the President will in no wise ever decisively act against the Taliban. It would be irrational,  undermine his strategic objectives, and perhaps be consistent with what McCarthy believes his real goals are, which are not to fight radical Islamism, but rather to “engage” it.

To have the stomach for what it would take to destroy the Taliban, Obama would have to face down opposition from the Muslim world. … I am convinced that, as between the Muslim world and us, Obama believes that the Muslim world has the stronger case. Obama doesn’t really want to fight the war, but he doesn’t want the political fallout that would come from not fighting it. What better way to thread that needle than to escalate troop levels — not for the purpose of eviscerating the Taliban, which is what my FPI friends want, but instead for the purpose of redistributing American wealth to the Third World (Obama’s signature legislative proposal when he was a senator) and trying to build a socialist sharia state? …

I know that we are not trying to win the overall war and that we have a commander-in-chief whose leanings are highly suspect. … I’m all for wiping out the Taliban. But what makes us think this president will commit to that goal?

McCarthy’s train of argument is critically dependent on the argument that President Obama is not seriously intent on fighting Islamic extremism, at least not by arms. Everything else is built on this foundation. Concede it and you concede the rest of McCarthy’s argument; reject it and you axe his tree at the roots. So the question ultimately boils down to what the President is really up to.  If he intends to win, the President deserves national support; if he’s throwing the match then to support Obama would be not only be immoral, but to be complicit in a monstrosity.

Ironically, the New York Times also recently worried Obama and Afghanistan; it worried he would become another Lyndon Johnson failure; that Afghanistan would be his Vietnam. Although the NYT cloaks its concern in the idea that like Johnson, Obama may be trapped in an unwinnable situation against an underrated enemy — deceived by gung-ho advisers who saw the chimera of victory — no one who has followed the history of Vietnam can be unaware of the charge that Johnson never intended to “win” it. That is the parallel that the NYT never mentions, but which is really the unacknowledged elephant in the room.  Tony Blankley at the Washington Times, for example, says LBJ was only going through the motions from the first.

On May 27, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson had telephone conversations about Vietnam with McGeorge Bundy, his national security adviser, and Sen. Richard Russell, chairman of the Armed Services Committee. First, to Bundy, he said: “It just worries the hell out of me. I don’t see what we can ever hope to get out of there. … I don’t think it’s worth fighting for, and I don’t think we can get out. It’s just the biggest damn mess I ever saw. … What the hell is Vietnam worth to me?” In a second, 20-minute conversation that day with his friend Sen. Russell, Johnson said: “I’ve got lots of trouble. What do you think about this Vietnam thing?” Russell responded: “It’s the damn worst mess I ever saw. … I’d get out.” …

Publicly, Johnson said it was a war we had to fight and that we would win it. Now, of course, we know that he believed we couldn’t win even before he sent the first of those 57,992 American boys over there to die. And that he did it because he didn’t have, in his words, “the nerve” to follow his best judgment because he wouldn’t risk his own political danger, perhaps impeachment.

In this narrative, Johnson sent up to 1,000 Americans a month to their deaths because he didn’t “want the political fallout that would come from not fighting” Vietnam.  Others have argued that, contrary to Blankney’s assertion, LBJ really wanted “to nail that coonskin to the wall” in Southeast Asia; that he fought it from strategic principle not political expediency. But many will concede that whether LBJ wanted to win it or not, he fought it with one eye to the public relations polls and the reactions of his own left wing. He imposed so many restrictions, introduced so many rules that perhaps whether LBJ ‘wanted to win’ or not, his objective strategic behavior was in the end indistinguishable from someone who wanted to lose. And he lost.

The really alarming thing is that both President Obama and the NYT may see the domestic political fallout of a defeat in Afghanistan as worse than the defeat itself; that neither may particularly care if the nation loses its pants as long as Obama doesn’t lose face. In the past such suspicions were dismissed on the grounds that nobody’s patriotism should be so suspect; that no one could be so vile. But that depends on how you define patriotism. And we now know that some people actually believe that America and the world will be better served by inflicting a series of defeats on the US and cutting it down to a small and peaceful size. What should we believe? In the end we are where Andy McCarthy left us: dependent on our judgment of the character and intent of politicians. ‘Trust me,’ they all say. The nation, by definition, trusts the Commander in Chief with their lives. The voters peer into the mystery that is a man and each comes to his own conclusions.


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