Aside from the president's nuclear initiatives, Team Obama's strategic imagination is woefully wanting. Far from taking us back to the future after the Bush years, they have taken us forward into the past.
Elected on the promise of no longer fighting the wrong war in Iraq, once in office the president persisted in his pledge to fight the last war in Afghanistan even though Al Qaeda had moved on to Pakistan. Apparently believing that this time was somehow different because his generals were smarter, Obama also chose to forget the lessons from Vietnam: Counter-insurgency is counterproductive because of the inevitable collateral damage done to local civilians by foreigners rooting out guerillas swimming in the sea of their own people. There is not one time I've met with Hamid Karzai over the past years where he wasn't criticizing the US for killing so many civilians in the course of the campaign against the Taliban.
It is thus no big surprise that the new generation of the best and brightest (McChrystal, Petraeus et al) has managed to elevate the Taliban from backward-looking tribalists on the wane to a national resistance against occupation. After ten years of war, we are back at ground zero. Even the senile ravens of the Soviet Politburo could see after six years that war in Afghanistan was a losing proposition and ordered their tanks to rumble out of the country.
Instead of distractedly listening to his generals while trying to cap the Gulf oil spill and fend off Fox News, Obama should screen the new film "Restrepo" at the White House. This amazing film, which followed a full deployment of American troops in the Korengal Valley, amply reveals the futility and tragedy of the war. It surely paints a truer picture of the reality on the ground than those McNamara-esque briefing charts from the Pentagon.
In one scene, you see the US officer in charge at a weekly "shura" awkwardly trying "to win hearts and minds" by promising jobs and prosperity when a new road comes through. Speaking through an interpreter, he gets only blank stares from the weathered and toothless red-bearded elders. He asks for workers for the road, as if offering a favor. He gets more blank stares. And no takers.
In another scene, the blank stares turn animated when a group of locals demand the US troops replace one of their cows that was killed after it got caught in the perimeter wire of a forward camp. The officer in charge radios a higher up. No, he won't replace the cow. No, he won't pay for it. How about the cow's weight in rice and beans, he offers! We're spending $100 billion a year in Afghanistan and the US can't replace a cow worth at least two daughters? So much for winning hearts and minds.
In yet another scene, an air strike is called in that mistakenly kills 5 family members, including children. The American in charge apologizes, but tells himself the strike also killed at least that many Taliban. I would say that is progress that cancels itself out.
And for all this wasted effort, young American boys are losing their lives, as we witness in the terrifying ambush scenes. We hear the bullets whiz by. We feel the fear. We see these tough young men tremble and cry. Above all, we see why the war can't be won: bonded by the experience of combat, these brave Americans are fighting because they are loyal to each other, especially the memories of their dead comrades. No one ever mentions the grand goals of "the good war."
In the broader Middle East, Obama has been captured by the foreign policy of the Clintons, which is too tied to the Arab leaders and way too acquiescent to Israel's intractable right wing. Every time you turn around Bill Clinton is at some forum in the Arab Emirates or Sharm al Shaikh extolling the mirage of modernization in tribal desert lands where it takes ages for anything to change.
Pinning America's hopes for peace on the faded clout of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the administration has virtually ignored the emergence of Turkey as a "center power" in the region. While spilling blood and countless treasure to drag Afghanistan out of the 16th century, Team Obama seems unaware we are losing the hearts and minds of the most modern Muslim country of the 21st century. We are not only fighting the last war, we are pursuing the last peace process.
Team Obama should let Hamid Karzai and Pakistan make their political settlement with the Taliban. That will separate the jihadists who dream of hitting us on our own soil from the local boys who are only shooting our troops because we are kicking down their doors in some forsaken mountain hamlet they call home thousands of miles from America's shores. Once it is clear who is who and where they are, Team Obama should return to a counter-terror approach run by the intelligence agencies.
Then, instead of dissing Turkey, we should embrace it as the regional power most closely aligned with modernity. Rather than see Ankara as a troublemaker, we should see it as a key counterbalance to Iran and, as the only majority Muslim state with close ties to Israel, albeit strained these days, a key interlocutor in the peace process. Obama started out this way by his visit to Istanbul, but then his initiative seemed to just dissipate.
The biggest casualty of the Afghan war, however, is America's future itself. Our asymmetrical attention to Afghanistan and Al Qaeda has so warped our perspective we can't see the broader strategic challenge in the world today: As the Western democracies from Greece to California are becoming ungovernable, authoritarian China is striding boldly into the future.
While the West is mired in debt, riven by partisanship and paralyzed by political gridlock, China's unified leadership is lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty, creating a university system modeled on California's, building the world's fastest trains, digging subways deep under its megacities, raising state-of-the-art ports and airports and taking over the global solar industry.
Fifty years ago, when China was barely beyond the throes of peasant revolution, California, for example, was looking boldly to its future. It laid the foundation for becoming the world's eighth-largest economy by building the world-class university system China is now mimicking, many thousands of miles of connecting freeways and Pharoahnic-scale canals to bring water from the north to the parched south. Millions migrated from around the country and the world to partake of the "golden dream" enabled by this infrastructure in paradise.
Today, 93% of Californians consider their state government broken. With a $20 billion deficit and no revenue options, California is factually bankrupt. Traders consider its bonds to be a greater risk than those of Kazakhstan. Already nearly 8% of its budget goes to interest payments on debt. Students are protesting tuition increases and canceled classes. Teachers are being laid off. Prisoners are being let go. Health services for the poor and elderly are being slashed.
None of this is to suggest China doesn't have serious problems or that America doesn't have great strengths. And of course, developing and mature economies have different dynamics. But it does suggest that governance matters when it comes to whether a state or nation advances or regresses. And the West today is characterized by bad governance. There is plenty of evidence to suggest what the Chinese suspect: Western-style democracy ends up being captured by organized special interests and a short-term mentality.
Focusing the consumer democracies of the West once again on building their future, not clearing Marjah of indigenous Taliban, is the overarching challenge of our time. Its time to get our priorities straight and get back to the future Obama promised. America's prestige will only be sapped, not preserved, by fruitlessly sticking to our guns in Afghanistan.
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