THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

How Do You Ask Someone to Be the Last to Die for President Obama's Political Image?

I don't like to try to read the minds of politicians - mostly because with the automatons we have in office today, if you actually could read their minds, my guess is you'd find almost nothing actually going on in there. However, there are ways to ferret out the actual motives of politicians - and in particular, on the issue of the Afghanistan War.

Consider this fact that has been reported almost nowhere other than McClatchy (incidentally, one of the only news organizations that didn't propagandistically beat the drum for the Iraq War):

There are 68,000 U.S. troops and 42,000 from other countries in Afghanistan. The U.S. Army's recently revised counterinsurgency manual estimates that an all-out counterinsurgency campaign in a country with Afghanistan's population would require about 600,000 troops. (emphasis added)

Yes, to run the kind of counterinsurgency operation that President Obama said he's aiming for in his West Point speech this week, the U.S. Army says there needs to be 600,000 troops in Afghanistan. President Obama obviously knows this - and yet his escalation means we'll only* have 100,000 troops there (And even if you insist that the 600,000 number is for an "all-out" counterinsurgency campaign and further insist Obama is not promising an "all-out" counterinsurgency campaign, he's still not proposing even a quarter of the 600,000 number - for self-identified goals that would clearly require nearly and all-out effort).

Therefore, we know one of two three things is going on. Either:

1) President Obama believes we can conduct the kind of counterinsurgency he says we need with one sixth of the troop levels his counterinsurgency experts say are necessary, or

2) President Obama is escalating the war with no intention of halting an escalation, but instead an intention of continuing to escalate to much higher troop levels irrespective of his vague promise to try to bring troops home in 2011, or

3) President Obama is risking the lives of 100,000 troops in order to prevent being labeled "weak" - but with no intention of actually waging the counterinsurgency strategy he publicly says is necessary.

I'm going to discount possibility number one right off the bat. President Obama is a smart person - he's not an idiot like George W. Bush. So I'm not going to believe he sincerely believes he knows more about the numbers needed to run a counterinsurgency than the U.S. Army experts who he relies on to make those estimates. Put another way, because of Obama's intellect, we can assume he knows 100,000 troops will not be enough to accomplish the goals he said in his speech he's committed to. Additionally, we know that he's probably not serious even about eventually Afghan-izing the security force in country (like Nixon said he would Vietnam-ize that war) because the Wall Street Journal now reports the president "has soured on a call from its top commander to double the size of the Afghan police and army."

For argument's sake, let's rule out possibility number two as well, if only to avoid speculation on whether Obama is or is not an honest person. There's simply no way to know whether he's lying to us about his intention to start a drawdown in 2011 until that date arrives. So speculating on that is kinda pointless. Let's just take him at his word that that is his intention.

It is possibility number three that is the most interesting - and most likely - if current political realities and history are considered.

Obama knows that politically, he cannot come out and demand the deployments that would be required to move 600,000 troops into Afghanistan (if we even had the troop strength to muster such a force). A request like that would be laughed at by the Congress and intensely opposed by a public that already intensely opposes an increase of 30,000 troops (and let me be clear: I'd certainly oppose that for all of the same well-grounded economic and military reasons that make such a massive deployment politically impossible).

But Obama also seems very concerned about how a genuine withdrawal might allow Republicans and the Washington Establishment to portray him as "weak" - a term that is defined by that Establishment as anything short of unbridled militarism. It is the same concern Lyndon Johnson privately voiced over and over and over again to his aides during the lead-up to the Vietnam War - the only difference is that Obama's aides are rather open about how the Afghanistan escalation is, in part, about preserving an image of "strength" for their boss. Notice the White House's carefully calibrated top-line message on the day of the announcement:

"There isn't anybody with a straight face that can question the resolve of this commander-in-chief to put the appropriate resources on what he believes was an urgent threat to our national security," said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. "Again, I don't know anybody who can make that logical argument." (emphasis added)

That's what this is really all about - not actually confronting an alleged "urgent threat to our national security" (because Obama's Army experts say that would take 600,000 troops, not 100,000 troops), but merely generating an image that projects the "resolve of this commander-in-chief."

By putting in 30,000 more troops, Obama can request a buildup that's (barely) politically palatable in Congress, and fulfills the false concept of "strength" (ie. "strength" = militarism) artificially manufactured by the Washington media/political establishment - even though he knows that 30,000 troop escalation is not enough to do what his own military experts say is necessary to achieve the goals he says he wants achieved.

In an interview with the same Washington elite who manufacture this bullshit concept of "strength" and "weakness," Obama insists "Not only is [my decision] not popular, but it's least popular in my own party" and then pats himself on the back for supposedly having courage by saying popularity is "not how I make decisions."

It's a nice little self-aggrandizing pirouette - one that obscures the fact that, in fact, popularity is exactly how he's trying to make decisions. He's trying to find a way to be very popular - ie. considered very "strong" and manly - among Washington insiders (thus the escalation), while simultaneously limiting the unpopularity of his actions among the general public (thus an escalation far short of what his own military experts say is necessary). And because of that unbridled political narcissism - because of that apparent desire to be loved not just by his constituents (ie. the public) but also (and more importantly to Obama) by the Washington power class - troops lives are being put on the line unnecessarily.

And so it's fair to ask two simple questions. Is it really worth putting 100,000 Americans at risk for the next few years exclusively to protect the political image of a president? More specifically, is it worth putting those 100,000 American lives on the line so that President Obama can fulfill the media and political establishment's artificial definition of "strength"?

I certainly don't think so, and I think it's an almost unprecedented level of immorality.

When John Kerry famously asked about Vietnam, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" he was right to suggest that Vietnam was, in part, an honest Cold War "mistake" (although as the Johnson tapes also show, it was also, in part, a deliberately craven effort to protect a president's "strong" credentials). Afghanistan is different - we've been there 8 years, so the awful consequences of a new escalation (and continued occupation) that's nonetheless not truly designed to achieve goals isn't some innocent "mistake." It's almost entirely deliberate. And so the question for President Obama on Afghanistan is simply "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for your political image?"

ADDENDUM: For those interested in more, I strongly suggest reading these pieces by Nick Kristof, George Will and Stephen Spain - voices that span the ideological spectrum.

* NOTE: I use only not to suggest that's not a lot, only to suggest it's far less than the 600,000 the Army says it needs.