In the wake of the take-down of Osama bin Laden, President Barack Obama used last week's glittering European tour to further lay out and demonstrate his emerging multilateral geopolitical doctrine. It's an approach with promise, even as threatening crises continue to press in on his presidency. But as soon as he returned to the U.S., Obama was caught up short by events.
Obama is encountering major new setbacks in Afghanistan, America's biggest unilateral operation despite its NATO trappings. He's had to turn away from the general who was reportedly his choice to be the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a skeptic on the Afghan War, and appoint instead a general he just named to another post. And even though oil prices have dropped sharply since bin Laden's death, gasoline prices have made only a slight downward move, continuing the threat to the economy, and his re-election.
A Taliban suicide bomber struck a big blow over the weekend in Afghanistan. After successfully infiltrating the office of the governor of Takhar Province, he killed two Afghan generals and several German and Afghan soldiers, and wounded the provincial governor and Germany's top general in Afghanistan.
* High-profile Taliban infiltration attacks continued, capped over the weekend by the assassination of arguably Afghanistan's most effective general, who commanded the Northern Alliance forces in their final victory over the Taliban in 2001.
* Afghan President Hamid Karzai, angered by backfiring attacks against jihadist cadre that kill innocent civilians, declared that he will forbid future attacks on homes.
* Obama hastily turned away from his longtime favorite to replace retiring Admiral Mike Mullen as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, his close advisor Marine General James Cartwright (who'd advocated a much smaller U.S. build-up in Afghanistan), in favor of a general he had just installed as Army chief of staff in April.
* While Obama was in Europe for the G-8 summit last week, the House of Representatives nearly passed legislation calling for a major shift away from his escalation of the Afghan War.
Obama is up in the new CNN poll due to his strength on national security and geopolitical issues.
The full import of Saturday's Taliban attack in a provincial governor's office in northern Afghanistan became apparent to me later on when I saw the names of the dead. While the current governor of Takhar Province and Germany's top general in Afghanistan were both wounded in the attack, it was obvious that one of the two Afghan generals who were killed in the attack was actually the principal target.
He was General Mohammed Daud Daud. A young fighter and commander in the Afghan war against the Soviets, Daud was a bodyguard who became a protege to the legendary Ahmad Shah Massoud, the leader of Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, who was assassinated two days before 9/11 by an Al Qaeda team disguised as TV journalists.
Obama made major new military appointments on Memorial Day in the White House Rose Garden, passing over his long reported first choice to be the nation's top military officer.
Though the Northern Alliance was in considerable disarray following Massoud's assassination, Daud took command of its forces and, working with the CIA, special operations forces, and US air assets, led the Northern Alliance to victory over the Taliban in the last battle of the post-9/11 war, the Battle of Kunduz.
Daud went on to become governor of Takhar Province -- which is also where Massoud was assassinated by Al Qaeda -- and then head of the Afghan government's efforts to block the Taliban drug traffic. When he was killed, he was in charge of security in northern Afghanistan, one of the first areas in which US and NATO forces have planned to hand off all security arrangements to the Afghan government.
Also over the weekend, Afghan government officials complained that a NATO attack against jihadist cadre actually killed 16 civilians, mainly women and children.
This latest incident led to Karzai declaring today that air strikes against homes must end, just three days after he insisted on an end to night raids.
But Karzai may not get his way, even if it is his country.
Another president who doesn't seem to have gotten his way is Obama himself, this time with regard to his pick for America's top military officer.
Obama was long reported to favor Marine General James Cartwright, currently vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for the JCS chairmanship. But Cartwright had become a controversial figure for his advocacy -- at Obama's request -- of the option for a reduced escalation in Afghanistan.
Along with Vice President Joe Biden, Cartwright backed a lesser escalation of the Afghan War. This rubbed many in the Pentagon, including Gates and Mullen, the wrong way, as did his independent relationship with Obama.
Obama addressed the British Parliament in London's historic Westminster Hall. The US and UK, he declared, will serve as "catalysts for global action." Obama was introduced, incidentally, by House of Commons Speaker John Bercow.
Cartwright, a Marine Corps pilot whose call sign and nickname is "Hoss," for the character on the Western TV series Bonanza, also came under fire for his lack of combat experience.
Then there was the controversy over his personal life, which suddenly flared earlier this year. It was revealed to the press that he'd been accused of having an affair with a junior officer. Nothing came of that charge, but he was lightly disciplined for allowing her to pass out in his hotel suite while other officers were present.
Dempsey, in contrast, is a West Pointer and more of a team player, and a veteran armored forces officer of the Gulf War and the Iraq War. Dempsey commanded the forces in and around Baghdad during the post-invasion insurgency there. Before that, he was in charge of training Saudi ground forces.
That last may be one of Dempsey's biggest selling points, though naturally it's barely been mentioned in the press. The price of oil is critical for Obama's success, and Saudi Arabia has the single greatest influence over that.
The equation is simple. If oil and gasoline stay high, American voters will be angry and the economic recovery is in serious doubt. But if gas prices go down, the voters will be happy.
If you want to know why Obama is a lot more circumspect about human rights in Saudi Arabia than he is in Egypt, that's why.
While Obama was away, the House of Representatives nearly passed an amendment to the annual Department of Defense authorization bill requiring the U.S. to accelerate withdrawal from Afghanistan slated to begin in July. The July withdrawal is expected to be token, even after the death of Osama bin Laden.
Obama, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy did a little crowd-plunging before walking into the G-8 summit together in Deauville, France.
The vote was 215 to 204. Last summer, Afghan War opponents garnered only 162 votes, only eight of which were from Republicans.
This time around, a whopping 26 Republicans joined 178 Democrats in the vote. Eight Democrats voted against.
The amendment would have required the development of a timeline for withdrawal and expedited negotiations for a political solution.
In what's clearly a major development. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer spoke out on behalf of the anti-Afghan War move.
For all these problems since he's returned, Obama did have some good news on his trip.
The G-8 gathering of the heads of government of the US, UK, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Canada, and Russia has more frequently been a target for anti-globalist/anti-capitalist protesters -- who weren't much in evidence this time around -- as it has been a scene of major decision-making. But a few significant decisions were taken in Deauville.
The G-8 agreed to put together a fund to aid countries emerging as a result of the Arab Awakening, specifically Egypt and Tunisia, to prevent them from sliding back into autocracy. French President Nicolas Sarkozy put the number at $40 billion. Which still must be raised from governments, international agencies, and private corporations and foundations.
The G-8 also condemned Syria's massive crackdown on protesters and threatened further sanctions if it continues.
And Russia agreed to get off the fence on the Gaddafi regime in Libya. While highly critical of the NATO bombing campaign, which went beyond what it thought it had tacitly agreed to by refusing to veto the UN Security Council resolution in March which authorized the action, Russia has agreed to play a lead role in pushing longtime dictator Moammar Gaddafi to step down.
Previously, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who was not at the summit, had been highly critical of interference in Libya's internal affairs. Now it is the Russian position that Gaddafi must go, and it has pledged to use its geopolitical clout to make it happen, though it is not joining the military campaign.
There was some criticism of Obama for not allowing the US to play the lead role in Libya, but Britain and France are both stepping up again, deciding to deploy attack helicopters which will enable NATO air forces to be more effective in going after Gaddafi's ground forces which have finally been driven back from long besieged Misrata.
Obama scored heavily with the pomp and circumstance in Britain, and made some strides toward his multilateralist agenda at the G-8 summit in France. Clearly the conspiracy theories about the American part in the Libyan War have been shown to be wrong. Since the U.S. played the lead role in establishing the no-fly zone, and then stepped back, it's turned into just the sort of stalemated slog, albeit one that has prevented more Gaddafi attacks, that I wrote it would be from the beginning.
But the Bush/Cheney era unilateralism of the Afghan War -- which Obama has doubled down on -- threatens to drag him down. And the evident disarray around the appointment of the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman is not a good sign. When the president can't get his own top choice, who is disliked in part because he gave the right advice on the country's biggest present military intervention, that is definitely a problem.
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