Rather than trying to salvage Bush's policy in Afghanistan, the
president should show real courage and just pull the plug.
By Andrew J. Bacevich
December 3, 2009
is the greater folly: To fancy that war offers an easy solution to
vexing problems, or, knowing otherwise, to opt for war anyway?
the wake of 9/11, American statecraft emphasized the first approach:
President George W. Bush embarked on a "global war" to eliminate
violent jihadism. President Obama now seems intent on pursuing the
second approach: Through military escalation in Afghanistan, he seeks
to "finish the job" that Bush began there, then all but abandoned.
war, Bush set out to transform the greater Middle East. Despite immense
expenditures of blood and treasure, that effort failed. In choosing
Obama rather than John McCain to succeed Bush, the American people
acknowledged that failure as definitive. Obama's election was to mark a
new beginning, an opportunity to "reset" America's approach to the
The president's chosen course of action for Afghanistan
suggests he may well squander that opportunity. Rather than renouncing
Bush's legacy, Obama apparently aims to salvage something of value. In
Afghanistan, he will expend yet more blood and more treasure hoping to
attenuate or at least paper over the wreckage left over from the Bush
However improbable, Obama thereby finds himself following
in the footsteps of Richard Nixon. Running for president in 1968, Nixon
promised to end the Vietnam War. Once elected, he balked at doing so.
Obsessed with projecting an image of toughness and resolve -- U.S.
credibility was supposedly on the line -- Nixon chose to extend and
even to expand that war. Apart from driving up the costs that Americans
were called on to pay, this accomplished nothing.
If knowing when to cut your losses qualifies as a hallmark of
statesmanship, Nixon flunked. Vietnam proved irredeemable.
prospects of redeeming Afghanistan appear hardly more promising.
Achieving even a semblance of success, however modestly defined, will
require an Afghan government that gets its act together, larger and
more competent Afghan security forces, thousands of additional
reinforcements from allies already heading toward the exits, patience
from economically distressed Americans as the administration shovels
hundreds of billions of dollars toward Central Asia, and even greater
patience from U.S. troops shouldering the burdens of seemingly
perpetual war. Above all, success will require convincing Afghans that
the tens of thousands of heavily armed strangers in their midst
represent Western beneficence rather than foreign occupation.
president seems to appreciate the odds. The reluctance with which he
contemplates the transformation of Afghanistan into "Obama's war" is
palpable. Gone are the days of White House gunslingers barking "Bring
'em on" and of officials in tailored suits and bright ties vowing to do
whatever it takes. The president has made clear his interest in
"offramps" and "exit strategies."
So if the most powerful man
in the world wants out, why doesn't he simply get out? For someone who
vows to change the way Washington works, Afghanistan seemingly offers a
made-to-order opportunity to make good on that promise. Why is Obama
muffing the chance?
What Afghanistan tells us is that rather
than changing Washington, Obama has become its captive. The president
has succumbed to the twin illusions that have taken the political class
by storm in recent months. The first illusion, reflecting a
self-serving interpretation of the origins of 9/11, is that events in
Afghanistan are crucial to the safety and well-being of the American
people. The second illusion, the product of a self-serving
interpretation of the Iraq War, is that the U.S. possesses the wisdom
and wherewithal to guide Afghanistan out of darkness and into the
According to the first illusion, 9/11 occurred because
Americans ignored Afghanistan. By implication, fixing the place is
essential to preventing the recurrence of terrorist attacks on the U.S.
In Washington, the appeal of this explanation is twofold. It distracts
attention from the manifest incompetence of the government agencies
that failed on 9/11, while also making it unnecessary to consider how
U.S. policy toward the Middle East during the several preceding decades
contributed to the emergence of violent anti-Western jihadism.
to the second illusion, the war in Iraq is ending in a great American
victory. Forget the fact that the arguments advanced to justify the
invasion of March 2003 have all turned out to be bogus: no Iraqi
weapons of mass destruction found; no substantive links between Saddam
Hussein and Al Qaeda established; no tide of democratic change
triggered across the Islamic world. Ignore the persistence of daily
violence in Iraq even today.
The "surge" engineered by Army
Gen. David H. Petraeus in Iraq enables proponents of that war to change
the subject and to argue that the counterinsurgency techniques employed
in Iraq can produce similar results in Afghanistan -- disregarding the
fact that the two places bear about as much resemblance to one another
as North Dakota does to Southern California.
So the war launched
as a prequel to Iraq now becomes its sequel, with little of substance
learned in the interim. To double down in Afghanistan is to ignore the
unmistakable lesson of Bush's thoroughly discredited "global war on
terror": Sending U.S. troops to fight interminable wars in distant
countries does more to inflame than to extinguish the resentments
giving rise to violent anti-Western jihadism.
There's always a
temptation when heading in the wrong direction on the wrong highway to
press on a bit further. Perhaps down the road a piece some shortcut
will appear: Grandma's house this way.
Yet as any
navigationally challenged father who has ever taken his family on a
road trip will tell you, to give in to that temptation is to err. When
lost, take the first offramp that presents itself and turn around. That
Obama -- by all accounts a thoughtful and conscientious father -- seems
unable to grasp this basic rule is disturbing.
Under the guise
of cleaning up Bush's mess, Obama has chosen to continue Bush's
policies. No doubt pulling the plug on an ill-advised enterprise
involves risk and uncertainty. It also entails acknowledging mistakes.
It requires courage. Yet without these things, talk of change will
remain so much hot air.
Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations
at Boston University.
2009 Los Angeles Times