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Sartre Meets Afghanistan: Obama's "No Exit" Strategy

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To take some of the sting out of his decision to send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, President Obama laid out an exit strategy by setting a date -- July 2011 -- on which troops will begin withdrawing. The president, through Robert Gibbs, described the date as "locked in," "etched in stone," and having "no flexibility. Troops will start coming home in July, 2011. Period."

Sounds pretty definite.

But just four days later, members of Obama's cabinet were directly contradicting their boss.

Here was Hillary Clinton on NBC's Meet the Press:

We're not talking about an exit strategy or a drop dead deadline. What we're talking about is an assessment that in [July] 2011, we can begin a transition.

And here was Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on the same program:

We're not talking about an abrupt withdrawal. We're talking about something that will take place over a period of time... Because we will have 100,000 troops there. And they are not leaving in July of 2011.

Has an absolute ("Troops will start coming home in July 2011. Period.") ever morphed faster into something as ambiguous, amorphous, and conditional ("an assessment")? Is this the famous "team of rivals" concept we heard so much about in action?

And just in case the lack of clarity wasn't clear, there was Gates again, this time on ABC's This Week:

I don't consider this an exit strategy. And I try to avoid using that term. I think this is a transition.

So even claiming to have an exit strategy is apparently off limits. What we've had over the weekend was the rollout of "Operation Vague Transition That Might, Or More Likely Might Not, Actually Happen in 2011... Or Over Time."

But on Monday Gibbs acted as if Clinton and Gates hadn't actually said what they said. When asked at a briefing with reporters whether U.S. troops could start coming home before July, 2011, Gibbs responded, "It could happen earlier, sure... It won't happen later."

Feeling dizzy yet?

What came through loud and clear from Obama's announcement and the subsequent multiple walkbacks of the notion that we might ever leave Afghanistan -- followed by Gibbs' steadfast certainty that we will on or before July, 2011 -- is that this White House has a serious credibility crisis.

Do they think rebuilding a war-torn tribal nation is going to be possible when they can't even successfully announce a policy to rebuild a war-torn tribal nation? They need an exit strategy for their rollout of an exit strategy.

The optimistic view of Obama's decision to take his time in responding to General McChrystal's request for more troops was that the cerebral president was trying to -- as he promised during the campaign in relation to Iraq -- rethink the mindset that led us into war. After eight years of the war in Afghanistan, with almost every year being more deadly than the last, the American people have certainly changed the way they think about it. In the latest CNN/ORC poll, 51 percent of Americans said they oppose this war.

Despite that consensus, the media continue to frame Afghanistan -- as they do everything else -- in terms of Right vs. Left. And, viewing the president's decision through this prism, they applaud him for "going against his base" and "distancing himself from the Left."

How deeply entrenched is this mindset? So entrenched that even someone as smart and knowledgeable as the New Yorker's Jane Mayer fell back on it during our appearance on MSNBC's Morning Joe. "It's very easy to criticize" Obama's exit plan, she said, adding, "this is true for the Right or the Left." She then briefly channeled Dick Cheney, who she has written so brilliantly about in the past, warning that "if New York is taken out again," Obama will get the blame!

Actually, over the past eight years it's been much easier to cheerlead than to criticize. It's hard to look back at those years and their two wars and conclude that the problem is that we've had too much criticism. Shouldn't decisions that require enormous costs -- in blood as well as resources -- be met with ferocious questioning by the media? Articles sent to academic journals get more rigorous vetting these days than do decisions to escalate wars.

Just look at the inside story of Obama's decision, very positively spun in Sunday's New York Times by Peter Baker. The White House's decision-making process, we are told, was "intense, methodical, rigorous, earnest."

Reading the piece reminded me of the sensation I got when I read Bob Woodward's hagiographic Bush at War: impressed by the level of detail an all-access-pass can get you, but distressed by the utter lack of perspective or independent analysis of the events being described.

I kept thinking of Joan Didion's scathing description of Woodward's reporting as marked by "a scrupulous passivity, an agreement to cover the story not as it is occurring but as it is presented, which is to say as it is manufactured."

Last week, Baker expressed concern that including new media outlets like HuffPost and Talking Points Memo in the White House press pool rotation could lead to the insertion of ideology into the reporting on the quotidian details of the president's day.

Perhaps he should spend less time worrying about that and more time worrying that his own reportorial "scrupulous passivity" so easily leads to the insertion of the administration's desired spin into the reporting on momentous decisions of war and peace.

Notwithstanding Baker's stenography or Mayer's embrace of the Right/Left mindset, the truth is that opposition to the war has far transcended Right vs. Left. George Will, who in August called for withdrawal from Afghanistan, and who is far from a lefty, recently said that Obama's plan was a replay of "the Bush program, which is, as he used to say, as the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down." For Obama it's "as the Afghans stand up, we'll stand down."

Richard Haass, who was Director of Policy Planning at the State Department for George Bush, was also critical. "Wars are always easier to get into than out of, and this is unlikely to be the exception to that," said Haass on This Week. "But I think it would have to be the triumph of hope over experience to think that if and when we draw down and we go back, say, to pre-surge levels that any improvements will endure."

This is why Haass' piece in the latest Newsweek is entitled "No Exit." For Haass, "the strategist with the most to say about the current U.S. foreign-policy predicament may be Jean-Paul Sartre." Given that we're trying to nation-build -- without, of course, calling it nation-building -- in a nation that has proven impervious to nation-building, perhaps Kafka would have even more to say.

Tom Friedman, also nobody's lefty, captured the Kafka-esque quality of our ill-defined mission:

"To put it succinctly," he wrote in the New York Times on Sunday, "this only has a chance to work if Karzai becomes a new man, if Pakistan becomes a new country and if we actually succeed at something the president says we won't be doing at all: nation-building in Afghanistan. Yikes!"

Judging from his speech at West Point, Obama apparently thought that if he just explained his plan in an impassive, matter-of-fact way, reality would bend itself to his crisp, orderly tone. But Afghanistan is the antithesis of orderly.

Want proof? Check out this Pentagon schematic of the U.S.'s counter-insurgency strategy that NBC's Richard Engel dug up. Warning: it's NSFS (Not Safe for Sanity)

Writing on HuffPost, David Bromwich posited that Obama "is almost convinced of the omnipotence of words. When once he has persuaded himself of a thing -- that it is true, or that it is plausible and might become true -- the words that embody his conviction have for him the quality of deeds already done."

Does that sound familiar? Not only is Obama continuing Bush's war, he's continuing his method of Magical Thinking: the idea that simply saying something is true is the same as its being true. We're getting more eloquent words this time, to be sure, but the same tragic result: endless wars of choice.

Gates and Clinton now claim that July, 2011 isn't really an actual exit date. Sadly, I believe them. Obama isn't distancing himself from "the Left" with his decision to escalate this deepening disaster. He's distancing himself from the national interests of the country.

 
 
 

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