Debra J. Saunders

At the Democratic National Convention in Denver last summer, then-Sen. Barack Obama pledged to "finish the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan."

Lately Obama has toned down his rhetoric when it comes to succeeding in Afghanistan. "I'm always worried about using the word 'victory,' because, you know, it invokes this notion of Emperor Hirohito coming down and signing a surrender to MacArthur," the president told ABC in July.

Apparently the "the audacity of hope" approach does not apply to the U.S. military fighting against al-Qaida and the Taliban.

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I can only imagine the jeers that would have followed if Bush Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had suggested that dissident generals should give their "best advice to the president candidly but privately." Yet when Obama Defense Secretary Robert Gates said those words in response to reports that Gen. Stanley McChrystal believes NATO needs as many as 40,000 additional U.S. troops to turn the tide in Afghanistan, Democrats like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi agreed. Forget all that posturing about the need for generals to give their best assessment. In 2009, Pelosi is more focused on the "line of command."

On the other side of the aisle, Republicans -- yes, including me -- want the brass to go public with their wish lists.

McChrystal has bigger issues before him. He believes that if Washington fails to provide more troops, then Afghanistan will crumble into "Chaos-istan." The Taliban wins, al-Qaida wins and Americans win their eternal disdain.

In one camp, McChrystal advocates sending more troops to win over the Afghan population by wreaking less civilian damage. In the other camp, some Obama aides support keeping U.S. troop levels around the scheduled 68,000 through this year, while keeping al-Qaida at bay with drones and other air attacks that result in civilian casualties.

Honest people can disagree as to which strategy will succeed. But it's hard to understand how Obama can deliver on his 2008 campaign promises if he can't use the word "victory," and after he has talked to McChrystal only twice since June.

The New York Times reported Wednesday that Obama told GOP Sen. John McCain that he will not reach a decision on the Afghanistan strategy "leisurely." Good.

As Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Santa Clarita (Los Angeles County), and the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, observed in a conference call after meeting with Obama on Tuesday, delay and doubt undermine the NATO effort. During a recent visit to Afghanistan, a general told him that every day his Marines get asked by civilians, "When are you leaving?"

McKeon agreed with Obama on Afghanistan in 2008. He agreed with Obama earlier this year. When it comes to Afghanistan, congressional Republicans will support Obama, as long as they believe he wants to win in the region. It's Democrats who may force the president to make not the best military decision, but the best political decision, he can muster.

For his part, McKeon does not want to ask, "If we're not going to fight it to the best of our ability, then why are we there?"


Debra J. Saunders


 
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