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Monday, October 12, 2009  

Watch for Crossing Goalposts

Piecing together a chronology of the politics of the Afghan war, it struck me as odd that a year ago, the party line from the right was that we had plenty of troops in Afghanistan, everything there was fine, and the central front in the war on terror was Iraq. It's not much of an exaggeration to say that the foreign policy debate of the 2008 campaign was a matter of Iraq versus Afghanistan, with McCain loudly and repeatedly championing the priority of the former.

Obama won and immediately made good on his promise to add troops to Afghanistan. Now it's the fall of 2009 and the very same people who thought that we had plenty of soldiers in Afghanistan 17,000 reinforcements ago are equally insistent that we need MOAR TROOPZ to get the job (whatever that may be) done (however that would be measured). Meanwhile Iraq's centrality in terror-war-front-ness could not be more completely forgotten.

Why did this happen? I actually thought, however strange it sounds, that the Iraq focus was a genuine strategic choice, a matter of prioritizing Iraq's oil strategic resources, historic centrality in the Arab world, and proximity to Saudi, Syria, and Iran. But that seems not to have been the case. Maybe Yglesias is right and it's a matter of a politician (McCain) and, I'd say, a political tendency that looks to him for guidance, being in favor of whatever war or escalation of war is being proposed:

In the mid-nineties, he wanted to start a war against North Korea. In 1999, he wanted a land invasion of Serbia. But in 2002, he viewed North Korea’s nuclear program as no big deal (and certainly wasn’t mentioning the need to invade Serbia) because that might distract from the goal of invading Iraq. In 2006, he downplayed problems in Afghanistan to further his goal of sending more troops to Iraq. But now Afghanistan’s in the spotlight so we need to send troops there. But just last summer, he thought we needed to intervene in the war between Russia and Georgia.

If anyone but lefty (and paleo) bloggers were actually keeping track of this absurd record, it might start influencing our public discourse a little. If we had listened to John McCain a year ago, we'd actually have fewer troops in Afghanistan than we have now--a total that, McCain 2009 insists, must be jacked up still more. But I never hear this pointed out on NPR or anywhere else. What you end up with is this strange class of pundits (McCain is, and long has been, much more pundit than legislator) who can endlessly argue for the most hawkish available position regardless of overall incoherency.

Personally, I'm sympathetic to those arguing for a counter-terrorism rather than counter-insurgency approach to Afghanistan. But the trade-offs are real and painful, and I'm keeping an open mind because smart and decent people seem to have a spectrum of opinions. What shouldn't get a hearing, however, is the essentially crankish view that more troops and more war is always the right policy.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 1:59 PM
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