Saturday, November 14, 2009
Taliban Dreams (4): Political Suicide
I've suggested in previous posts that with regard to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Obama is having to make his moves on an already check-mated board. None of his choices--whether to escalate and "surge," or to de-escalate and withdraw, or to stick with the bare minimum and just contain--have any significant chance of success. In such circumstances, it is unbearable to be the person in charge of sending exhausted soldiers ever more deeply into the jaws of death--and you can see the president wrestling with kaleidoscopic feelings as he paces his cage like a trapped animal, trying to make sense of his rotten choices. Andrew Sullivan put it even more succinctly:
"The awful truth is what 9/11 revealed, and what it was designed to reveal, is that there is nothing we can really do definitively to stop another one." I didn't think it would be possible to sound a bleaker note than my own, but Sullivan manages it. "If you calculate the costs of that evil attack against the financial, moral, and human costs of the fight back," he writes, "9/11 was a fantastic demonstration of the power of asymmetry to destroy the West....Everything that has subsequently transpired has merely deepened that lesson. The U.S. is now bankrupt, trapped in Iraq and Afghanistan for the rest of our lives, unable to prevent the two most potentially dangerous Islamist states, Pakistan and Iran, from getting nukes, morally compromised and hanging on to global support only because of a new president who is even now being assaulted viciously at home for such grievous crimes as trying to give more people access to health insurance." So much for spitball politics and the art of the impossible.
I predict that when the bipartisan attacks explode over Obama's Afghanistan policy, once it has been officially announced, the health care debates will quickly seem like dry catarrh in comparison with a lethal case of swine flu. In other words, when it comes down to "vicious assaults," we ain't seen nothin' yet. "I am told by people I respect that Barack Obama cannot pull out of both Iraq and Afghanistan without becoming a one-term president," Garry Wills writes in the current issue of The New York Review of Books. "The charges from various quarters would be toxic--that he was weak, unpatriotic, sacrificing the sacrifices that have been made, betraying our dead, throwing away all former investments in lives and treasure. All that would indeed be brought against him, and he would have little defense in the quarters where such charges would originate."
What Wills is saying, in so many words, is that for Obama to quit Afghanistan at this stage would be to commit political suicide. Quite simply, it would make him into a one-term president.
"But what justification is there" he asks, "for buying a second presidential term with the lives of hundreds or thousands of young American men and women in the military?...I would rather see him a one-term president than have him pass on another unwinnable war to the person who will follow him in office."
If Obama is already in an implacable "no-win" situation regarding his choices in Afghanistan, the choices facing him right here at home are no less lethal. Wills is suggesting that some leader has to finally break the spell and give the military a break and a chance to recover, and that Obama is the best person to do that. It is unlikely, he thinks, that there will be another president in the foreseeable future with the moral and rhetorical force to talk us out of a foolish commitment that cannot be sustained without shame and defeat. "If it costs him his presidency, what other achievement can match it?" he writes.
Not being one more president willing to kick the can down the road would indeed be a major achievement, I agree. But if the cost of getting ourselves out of these unwinnable wars entails the predictable demise of our president, that is a staggering price to pay--one that, with a challenged Obama out of the picture, could be the final, ruinous checkmate for our country. Even in a world of long shadows, this would be a bitter trade-off. The very prospect makes me twitchy.
Of course there are just as many millions of Americans who have already determined that if Obama DOES decide to pour more troops and resources into Afghanistan--the biggest black hole ever--they will also withdraw their support of him forever. Either way, Obama is now a moving target: America's new scapegoat. Whatever he decides, he stands to lose major support, big time, either way. It's not a pretty picture. The saddest part is, if Obama loses, which seems to be how the internal politics of all this is aligning, every one of us will become a loser as well, right along with him. We have no viable replacement.