The president and commander-in-chief went up to West Point to lay out his new/old/same/different strategy for the war in Afghanistan. Finally.
The result: more mixed signals than any broken stoplight could produce. Go. Caution. Stop. All flashing at the same time. Charge! But retreat soon. In this War of Necessity, he who hesitates is lost, but look before you leap. Accentuate the negative, eliminate the positive, and generally mess with Mr. In-Between.
Let's hope our enemies are half as confused as our allies by this flurry of contradictory orders, not to mention the generals who are supposed to carry them out.
Only a White House apparatchik or NPR correspondent might find the president's strategy clear and convincing. Barack Obama seems out to rally the country by confusing it. Or as a sage observer commented some time ago: For if the sound of the trumpet be uncertain, who shall prepare himself for the battle?
Maybe this speech was supposed to frighten our enemies; it is more likely to embolden them. Especially the president's promise to withdraw American troops by 2011, or at least start to. To sum up, last Tuesday night the president and commander-in-chief mounted his warhorse and rode off in all directions.
How confused is his battle plan? Let us count the ways:
--First the president berated the previous administration for having caused the problem. This is his standard intro no matter what the subject of his speech, whether foreign wars, the domestic economy or anything in between. This time he complained that his predecessor had not fully met the requests for reinforcements from the commanders in the field, preparatory to explaining -- after almost a year of deliberation, meditation, consultation and general futzing around -- that he wasn't going to fully meet his commanding general's request, either.
You might think this a dilatory kind of leadership from a commander-in-chief; the president's admirers call it thoughtful, balanced statesmanship. His handpicked general, Stanley McChrystal, requested four additional brigades; the general is to get three and the president's best wishes. For 18 months, anyway, and then the president wants them back. Which lets al-Qaida and the Taliban know just how long to lie low before the coast is clear again. Then they can mount their next offensive.
--At one point the president casually mentioned that critics of this war needn't worry about its turning into another Vietnam because, unlike the present conflict in Afghanistan, in that war we faced "a broad-based popular insurgency." How casually the leader of the free world parrots old Viet Cong propaganda. Tell it to the South Vietnamese, who found themselves fighting North Vietnamese regulars pouring down the Ho Chi Minh trail into their country. That was no popular uprising; it was an invasion. And when Congress withdrew American support, there was no stopping the invaders. Which, of course, is why there are no more South Vietnamese.
--The president is determined to see the war in Afghanistan to a "successful conclusion." (That little but most important word, Victory, still sticks in his throat.) But any conclusion will be successful only if our Afghan allies can be confident they won't be abandoned.
To set a date certain for the American withdrawal from Afghanistan can only give our enemies hope. They are not bound to any timetable; they can wait indefinitely. Or as the Taliban put it, we may have the clocks, but they have the time. When we talk exit strategy, they hear us say defeat. Better to talk Victory, but this president won't even mention the word.
--Are you worried that the president has wasted valuable time assessing and re-assessing and re-re-assessing his war strategy? In the course of his rambling address, our young president explained that no time had really been lost. Because the reinforcements he's finally sending were never due in Afghanistan before next year anyway.
Nothing so well demonstrates his lack of military experience, or his tendency to reach a political compromise and call it a strategy, as this solemn assurance that in war speed is not of the essence. Every day, every week, every month his administration spent in collective navel-gazing allowed still more doubts to grow about whether America would stick it out in Afghanistan, let alone turn the tide.
Eventually that previous administration he loves to badmouth did turn the war in Iraq around. In the midst of that conflict, the American commander-in-chief woke up one day and realized all was lost unless he changed course dramatically and ordered the Surge in troop strength that mavericks in uniform and out (General David Petraeus and Sens. John McCain and Joe Lieberman) had been urging on him.
George W. Bush finally followed their advice. And it worked, despite the prophecies of doom at the time from leaders of the opposition like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, now respectively president and secretary of state of the United States. Their reputation precedes them, unfortunately.
Let it be noted that Mr. Obama's predecessor in the Oval Office refused to accept an arbitrary deadline for withdrawing American forces from Iraq. He had the guts to go for victory. Until this one does, Afghans will wonder whether the Americans have the resolve to see this war through to victory. Or rather, as Barack Obama would say, and did last Tuesday, to see it through to "a successful conclusion." There's a difference. As an American general named Douglas MacArthur once put it, in war there is no substitute for victory.
As a law professor presenting all sides of an issue before splitting every difference in sight, Mr. Obama was most impressive this week.
As a wartime president, not so much so.
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