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Michael Brenner

Michael Brenner

Posted: November 30, 2009 11:12 AM

Afghanistan: Obama Drops The Other Shoe

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The sham Afghanistan strategic review is now revealed for the empty exercise it always was. Escalation was inescapable, for Obama's staunch promotion of a 'necessary war' precluded a serious reappraisal of stakes and risks. Reversing himself would have demanded the kind of courage that is wholly foreign to him. So we are left with an open-ended commitment to an unwinnable war. That outcome speaks volumes about the failings of Obama as a leader as much as his impaired judgment.

The entire process reeks with dishonesty -- a double dishonesty. The White House deceived the country in advertising a root and branch critical analysis of the reasons for our engagement in Afghanistan that never took place. Also, the White House deceived itself in making believe that endless discussions over variations of the same strategy addressed core issues. All of the participants shared the same key assumptions that never have been questioned. Petraeus, Gates, Hillary, Jones, Biden, Holbrooke -- and Obama -- take as received wisdom four basic postulates: 1) the very existence of al-Qaeda's remnants constitutes a grave threat to American security; 2) the Taliban's agenda is fundamentally no different from al-Qaeda's, so they must be eliminated as a force in Afghan politics as well; 3) both groups can be suppressed by generous applications of military power; 4) the huge risks and costs of trying to do so are eclipsed by a dire threat to the United States. All of these highly dubious postulates have never been frontally addressed and debated.

What, then, did they spend two months and untold hundreds of hours debating -- including forty hours of Obama's direct participation? After all, the big questions of purpose and objective had been settled in the March review. One is hard pressed to give an answer. Probably these pow-wows entailed little more than repeated advocacies for 10,000 troops (Biden), 20,000 (Jones), or 40,000 (Petraeus, Hillary). A facsimile of the old Bud Lite beer commercials: chants of "Less Filling" alternating with chants of "Tastes Great." Finally, Obama picked 30,000 + as a nice consensual number. All the evidence available suggests that this fateful decision for America's future indeed was taken in this feckless manner.

So what to make of all the talk about Obama's demanding fresh options, of 'off-ramps,' of an exit strategy? It looks to be nothing more than White House spin provoked by the embarrassing leak of Ambassador General Eikenberry's memo casting doubt on the strategic framework sketched above. It is now obvious that Obama's sudden 'rejecting' of the four options on the table, in light of Eikenberry's intervention, was just standard White House theatre. It is inconceivable that Obama was not already aware of Eikenberry's heretical views since the memo was written at the end of October; and, in any event, he surely knew his ambasador's thinking.

My reading is that he chose to ignore those contentious ideas because they lay outside of the collective mindset fashioned by Petraeus/McChrystal and which Obama had signed onto. That explains the White House's fury at the leak of a skeptical viewpoint while tolerant of McChrystal's calculated leak of his escalation plan followed by public campaigning for it. This is vintage Obama, an exact copy of what he's done with Paul Volcker who was cast into the outer reaches of the financial policy universe because he was out of tune with Obama's chosen team of Rubin/Summers/Geithner et al. It was the leak of Eikenberry's memo that threw a wrench into the gears. No surprise then that we wind up with the original escalation plan only dressed out in fancy new packaging. The 9,000 troops ready for deployment within days were not awaiting Obama's return from China to get their gear together.

The country is ill served by a president who fails to meet his responsibility for the rigorous, open debate on matters of great consequence that he pledged and that is imperative for avoiding more dismal failure. What is the value of a 150 I.Q. when bereft of wisdom or conviction to guide it? Obama's audacity in pursuing his ambition is one thing; political and intellectual courage is quite another.