WASHINGTON -- If Michael Steele's latest gaffe -- criticizing the conflict in Afghanistan as "a war of Obama's choosing" -- was a test, Republicans generally passed it.
It must have been tempting for GOP leaders to join Steele in piling on an increasingly unpopular president, conducting an unpopular war, in the midst of a controversial troop escalation. But Steele was joined in his criticism only by professional provocateur Ann Coulter, locating both on a tiny island of anti-Obama wackiness.
Contrast this to 2007, when an increasingly unpopular president, conducting an unpopular war, in the midst of a controversial troop escalation, was set upon by most of the Democratic Party establishment. Majority Leader Harry Reid declared the Iraq War "lost." After the Iraq surge clearly had begun to work, Sen. Barack Obama proclaimed "the surge has not worked." Sen. Joe Biden called it "a tragic mistake." Rep. Nancy Boyda, D-Kan., walked out of a meeting of the House Armed Services Committee because she could not stand to hear a witness report good news from Iraq.
Had it prevailed, this gleeful defeatism would have led to an evacuation of American credibility even more damaging than Vietnam. But though partisan pessimism did not prevail in Iraq, it still managed to be politically destructive. Talk of Bush's war -- or Obama's war -- hints at a hopefulness that America might fail in order to demonstrate a political point. This is the most extreme sort of polarization -- one so intense that it overwhelms normal patriotic sentiment. It may be leaders who begin and conduct wars, but whole nations win or lose them.
The largest challenges to Obama's Afghanistan strategy -- apart from those on a very difficult Asian battlefield -- are internal.
Obama's national security team -- Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Adm. Michael Mullen, Gen. David Petraeus -- could hardly be stronger. James Mattis, the newly appointed head of Centcom, is a Marine of reassuring Marineness. "Marines don't know how to spell the word 'defeat,'" he explains.
But last week, Vice President Biden appeared at a fundraiser for one of the least responsible critics of the Afghanistan War, Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore. -- among a handful of House members who voted to defund the war entirely. "I encourage you, old buddy, to speak out," said Biden. "You're independent. Don't let anybody take that out of you." Is it possible to imagine Biden saying the same thing of a Democrat who is a leading climate science skeptic? Or a Democrat who dismisses Obama's health reform as socialism?
The military-civilian gap on Afghan policy remains wide. There is little doubt that Biden and America's ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, remain skeptical of the mission. And there are reasons for skepticism, including Afghan corruption and lack of effective administration.
But one of the largest reasons for pessimism is created, or at least tolerated, by the president himself -- the discord among administration officials. This was supposed to be the process presidency -- thoughtful, careful and deliberative. But Obama turns out to be a poor manager of people. Leaders such as Biden, Petraeus, Eikenberry and Mattis may be individually impressive. Together, they seem like an orchestra of one-man bands.
A team of rivals requires a decisive president. But Obama had ended up splitting differences that ought not to have been split. He supported the military's strategy and troop request, while accepting a deadline for beginning withdrawal that is now just 12 months away -- a deadline regularly reaffirmed by White House officials and Democratic congressional leaders. This approach has a contradiction at its core. One of the main military priorities in Afghanistan is to peel off that portion of the bad guys -- called by American strategists the "10-dollar-a-day Taliban" -- who might be won over by a combination of intimidation and outreach. But why should these rebels tie their fate to a retreating power?
A successful counterinsurgency campaign is founded on a paradox: The only way to leave successfully is to convince the enemy you will not flee precipitously. During the worst of the Iraq War, Mattis tried to persuade an Iraqi that America would not cut and run. "I told him," the general said, "I had found a little piece of property down on the Euphrates River and I was going to have a retirement home built there. I did that because I wanted to disabuse him of any sense that he could wait me out."
Many Afghans now require similar disabusing. In this conflict, Americans of every political background should rally to the president -- who in turn needs to rally the world with a more certain trumpet.