Last year, President Obama warned advisers that “I have two years with the public” in which to make a difference in Afghanistan, Bob Woodward writes in his latest book. Obama also explained to a Republican senator that in setting policy, “I can’t lose the whole Democratic Party.”
As it turns out, the backing of both Democratic and Republican voters has all but vanished anyway. Poll after poll show that Americans of every political persuasion have become deeply pessimistic about what might be accomplished by further sacrifice in Afghanistan.
In the most recent poll, by Politico, just 21 percent of Americans — and 26 percent of Republicans — believe that in the end we’re going to be successful in Afghanistan. The only reason that sentiment hasn’t translated into widespread opposition among politicians in Washington is because while voters oppose continuation of the war, they also just don’t care about it very much.
Personally, I think there’s something morally questionable about sending American men and women off to die in a war that most of their countrymen forget we’re even fighting most of the time. If people are volunteering to make the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf, the least we could do is take notice and care.
Nonetheless, “Obama’s Wars,” Woodward’s account of the Afghanistan debate within the administration, has brought predictable political responses. At one point, for example, Woodward quotes Obama as saying that “we can absorb a terrorist attack. We’ll do everything we can to prevent it, but even a 9/11, even the biggest attack ever … we absorbed it and we are stronger.”
To most Americans, that’s a reasonable statement of fact and even resolve, but there are those intent on hearing something else in those words. “How can an American president say that, as if he’s a detached observer and doesn’t care about Americans dying?” John Bolton, the former UN ambassador and a self-styled presidential possibility, asked on Fox News.
Most of the excerpts of Woodward’s book published so far focus on the complex interplay between Obama and his generals in setting policy. The men wearing stars on their shoulders want more troops, more time and more resources; Obama insists that more troops, time and resources come with limits that reflect political reality and the desires of the American people.
“In 2010, we will not be having a conversation about how to do more,” Obama is quoted as telling the brass. “I will not want to hear, ‘We’re doing fine, Mr. President, but we’d be better if we just do more.’ We’re not going to be having a conversation about how to change [the mission] … unless we’re talking about how to draw down faster than anticipated in 2011.”
That too has drawn predictable responses, including allegations that Obama is substituting his own judgment for that of military experts and is compromising our security with such a stance.
“The tragedy is by under-resourcing and de-prioritizing the Afghanistan war, Obama is sacrificing crucial U.S. national security interests and leaving the American people more vulnerable to future terrorist attacks,” Lisa Clark at the Heritage Foundation concluded.
That’s quite an indictment, particularly from a think tank that championed the invasion of Iraq. That decision ensured that our efforts Afghanistan would be grossly under-resourced for most of a decade. It also overlooks the fact that the military itself is deeply divided. According to Woodward, three high-ranking generals on Obama’s staff, two of whom are retired, were extremely dubious about the prospects of an Afghanistan surge.
Besides, a president as commander in chief has not just the right but the obligation to impose his own judgment on such matters.
Generals are programmed with a relatively narrow mindset, to fight and find a way to win. Public support, for the most part, is not their concern and shouldn’t be. Nor is it their place to worry about the financial strain of another 10 years of warfare — the time frame some in uniform have suggested will be necessary — on a nation that is only now coming to understand that it has fiscal limits. Generals also can’t let themselves worry whether victory, as traditionally understood, is even possible in a place such as Afghanistan.
A president can, and must, consider those factors. As Obama reportedly told Woodward on the question of victory, “I think about it more in terms of: Do you successfully prosecute a strategy that results in the country being stronger rather than weaker at the end?”
After almost 10 years with so little to show for it, that seems the right question to be asking.