Posted by: Jeff | December 3, 2009

Can We Say No?

This post by Andrew Sullivan, arguing that the surge in Afghanistan is an effort to unwind the American empire rather than preserve or expand it, is probably the most generous interpretation one can have of Obama’s announcement and still remain grounded in reality.

On reflection, Obama was saying something quite simple: one more try, guys. We owe it to those who have sacrificed already to try and finish the job. He has given the effort the full resources it needs at a time of real scarcity. He has given COIN doctrine one more chance to prove itself. He has put Petraeus and McChrystal and the 45 Kagans on notice: prove your case. And in this, I think Obama has found a middle balance that reflects where a lot of us are on this and that also offers a good faith chance for progress – with a good sense exit ramp after a reasonable length of time.

My issue is that I don’t think Obama’s strategy actually does give McChrystal and the COIN doctrine the resources they need. I think it just gives them a fig leaf. As Sullivan himself says in his first paragraph, anything short of a multi-decade, multi-trillion dollar colonization of Afghanistan is not going to deliver “victory” as it has been defined, albeit somewhat impressionistically, by the political discourse. And on a simple moral level, I have real problems with throwing another 30,000 lives into the meat grinder for the sake of political optics.

But beyond that, assuming Afghanistan has not sufficiently improved by mid 2011, the question is not whether that will demonstrate that withdrawal is the least worst option, as Sullivan puts it. Of course that is what it will demonstrate. The question is whether Americans will recognize that is what it demonstrates. Given recent history, I think it’s equally likely that if McChrystal has not delivered by 2011, then the Republican opposition and the political establishment will declare that the only responsible option is to double down again.

The question then is whether the American public would go along. It may be that after ten years of war, over a trillion dollars down the hole, a massive recession and a ballooning deficit, the public will simply put its foot down. Vietnam might be a telling example here. But in Vietnam, there actually were a few taxes passed to pay (marginally) for the war effort. And above all there was a draft. I am cynical enough to think that if there is any matter on which the American public can be perpetually convinced to take one more stab, it is the matter of war. Especially when that war is financed by deficit spending, and is fought by an all-volunteer force whose sacrifices and suffering are not broadly distributed across the general populace.

And if the American people do not put their foot down, then the reality of our deficit, our financial instability, and the military’s physical capacities will put its foot down for them.

As I blogged earlier today, I think Obama is gambling the blood and resources of Americans on whether the governments in Afghanistan and Pakistan can get their act together. Like Joe, I’m in agreement with George Will that this is a gamble he will almost certainly lose. If Sullivan is correct in his interpretation, Obama is also gambling that saying “no” to empire will be easier in 2011 than it is in 2009. I have my doubts on that score as well.

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