Joe Biden met with CENTCOM chief Gen. David Petraeus this morning to talk about Afghanistan -- an issue that has pushed the vice president into the spotlight, landing him on the cover of the latest Newsweek.
I have an idea for how he can capitalize on all the attention, and do what generations to come will always be grateful for: resign.
The centerpiece of Newsweek's story is how Biden has become the chief White House skeptic on escalating the war in Afghanistan, specifically arguing against Gen. McChrystal's request for 40,000 more troops to pursue a counterinsurgency strategy there.
The piece, by Holly Bailey and Evan Thomas, opens with details of a September 13th national security meeting at the White House. Biden speaks up:
"Can I just clarify a factual point? How much will we spend this year on Afghanistan?" Someone provided the figure: $65 billion. "And how much will we spend on Pakistan?" Another figure was supplied: $2.25 billion. "Well, by my calculations that's a 30-to-1 ratio in favor of Afghanistan. So I have a question. Al Qaeda is almost all in Pakistan, and Pakistan has nuclear weapons. And yet for every dollar we're spending in Pakistan, we're spending $30 in Afghanistan. Does that make strategic sense?" The White House Situation Room fell silent.
Being Greek, I'm partial to Biden's classic use of the Socratic method -- skillfully eliciting facts in a way that lets people connect the dots that show how misguided our involvement in Afghanistan has become.
It's been known for a while that Biden has been on the other side of McChrystal's desire for a big escalation of our forces there -- the New York Times reported last month that he has "deep reservations" about it. So if the president does decide to escalate, Biden, for the good of the country, should escalate his willingness to act on those reservations.
What he must not do is follow the same weak and worn-out pattern of "opposition" we've become all-too-accustomed to, first with Vietnam and then with Iraq. You know the drill: after the dust settles, and the country begins to look back and not-so-charitably wonder, "what were they thinking?" the mea-culpa-laden books start to come out. On page after regret-filled page, we suddenly hear how forceful this or that official was behind closed doors, arguing against the war, taking a principled stand, expressing "strong concern" and, yes, "deep reservations" to the president, and then going home each night distraught at the unnecessary loss of life.
Well, how about making the mea culpa unnecessary? Instead of saving it for the book, how about future author Biden unfetter his conscience in real time -- when it can actually do some good? If Biden truly believes that what we're doing in Afghanistan is not in the best interests of our national security -- and what issue is more important than that? -- it's simply not enough to claim retroactive righteousness in his memoirs.
Though it would be a crowning moment in a distinguished career, such an act of courage would likely be only the beginning. Biden would then become the natural leader of the movement to wind down this disastrous war and focus on the real dangers in Pakistan.
The number of those on both sides of the political spectrum who share Biden's skepticism is growing. In August, George Will called for the U.S. to pull out of Afghanistan and "do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent Special Forces units."
Former Bush State Department official and current head of the Council on Foreign Relations Richard Haas argued in the New York Times that Afghanistan is not, as Obama insists, a war of necessity. "If Afghanistan were a war of necessity, it would justify any level of effort," writes Haas. "It is not and does not. It is not certain that doing more will achieve more. And no one should forget that doing more in Afghanistan lessens our ability to act elsewhere."
In Rethink Afghanistan, Robert Greenwald's powerful look at the war (and a film Joe Biden should see right away), Robert Baer, a former CIA field operative says, "The notion that we're in Afghanistan to make our country safer is just complete bullshit... what it's doing is causing us greater danger, no question about it. Because the more we fight in Afghanistan, the more the conflict is pushed across the border into Pakistan, the more we destabilize Pakistan, the more likely it is that a fundamentalist government will take over the army -- and we'll have Al-Qaeda like groups with nuclear weapons."
And former Senator Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam vet and Biden confidant, told Newsweek that, while "there are a lot of differences" between Vietnam and Afghanistan, "one of the similarities is how easily and quickly a nation can get bogged down in a very dangerous part of the world. It's easy to get into but not easy to get out. The more troops you throw in places, the more difficult it is to work it out because you have an investment to protect."
And doing so, as we've seen, usually means losing more and more of that "investment": each of the last six years of the Afghanistan war has been more deadly than the one before.
Both sides of the Afghanistan debate were represented on this Sunday's This Week with George Stephanopoulos.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein offered up a few rationales for why Obama should rubber stamp Gen. McChrystal's wishes. First, she said, "there has to be a process of finding out, which of these people can we work with and which can we not." Really? Seven years in and we still haven't checked that one off our to-do list?
Feinstein then broke out the latest trendy, new-for-fall reason why we need to up the ante in Afghanistan -- it's all about the women. " I particularly worry about women in Afghanistan," Feinstein said, "acid in the face of children, girl children who go to school, women who can't work when they're widowed, huddled on the streets, begging, women beaten and shot in stadiums, you know, Sharia law with all of its violence."
This is indeed very tragic, and I share her concern. But missing from the discussion was the fact that "Sharia law with all of its violence" has just been made the law of the land by President Karzai -- you know, our man in Kabul. The Sharia Personal Status Law, signed by Karzai, became operational in July. Among its provisions: custody rights are granted to fathers and grandfathers, women can work only with the permission of their husbands, and husbands can withhold food from wives who don't want to have sex with them. On the plus side, if a man rapes a mentally ill woman or child, he must pay a fine.
Of course, even with America standing guard, only 4 percent of girls in Afghanistan make it to the 10th grade, and up to 80 percent of Afghani women are subjected to domestic violence. As one of the Afghan women interviewed in Rethink Afghanistan sums up the current situation: "The cases of violence against women are more now than in the Taliban time."
So can we please put to rest the nonsensical rationalization that we're there for women's rights? And don't be surprised if that reason is soon replaced by another -- those pushing for escalation in Afghanistan seem to have learned the Bush administration's old tactic of constantly moving the goal posts. Don't like this reason? Fine, here's another one.
Countering Feinstein on Stephanopoulos was Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern, who has taken the lead on this issue in Congress, introducing a bill calling for an exit strategy in Afghanistan.
"I think adding more American forces to Afghanistan would be a mistake," he said. "I think it would be counterproductive. And I think there's a strong case to be made that the larger our military footprint, the more difficult it is to achieve reconciliation."
McGovern then amplified Biden's concern that the real threat is elsewhere:
When I voted to use force to go to war after 9/11, I think I and everyone else in Congress voted to go after Al Qaida. That was our enemy. And Al Qaida has now moved to a different neighborhood, in Pakistan, where, quite frankly, they're more protected. And we're told by Gen. Jones that there are less than 100, if that, members of Al Qaida left in Afghanistan... So we're now saying we should have 100,000 American forces to go after less than 100 members of Al Qaida in Afghanistan? I think we need to re-evaluate our policy.
Or, as Biden put it, "does that make strategic sense?"
In June, Gen. Jones, the president's National Security Advisor, was at Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan, meeting with U.S. commanders there. This was shortly after the arrival of the 21,000 additional troops President Obama had sent over. Jones raised the question of what the president's reaction would be if he were asked for even more troops. Well, Jones said, answering his own question, if that happened, the president would probably have a "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment." In other words, wtf?
Well, Obama has gotten that request, but it wasn't a "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment" for him after all. Sadly, Newsweek reports that Obama is typically "looking for a middle way." But this isn't a negotiation for a used car, where you split the difference. It's either in our national security interest to be there or it isn't. It's either a necessary war or it isn't.
Newsweek's profile makes much of Joe Biden's loyalty. He's a "team player," one close friend says. And after he dissented on Afghanistan this spring he "quickly got on board."
I have no doubt that Joe Biden is a loyal guy -- the question is who deserves his loyalty most? His "team" isn't the White House, but the whole country. And if it becomes clear in the coming days that his loyalty to these two teams is in conflict, he should do the right thing. And quit.
Obama may be no drama, but Biden loves drama. And what could more dramatic than resigning the vice presidency on principle? And what principle could be more honorable than refusing to go along with a policy of unnecessarily risking American blood and treasure -- and America's national security? Now that would be a Whisky Tango Foxtrot moment for the McChrystal crowd -- one that would be a lot more significant than some lame, after-the-fact apology delivered in a too-late-to-matter book.