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Wednesday, December 02, 2009  

Balance

Reactions to the president's Afghanistan speech have been pretty lukewarm. Yglesias rightly points out that you can't coherently say that a conflict is in our vital national interests but that it's not a blank-check, open-ended deal with our local proxies. All the same, while he's not a fan of the policy, he thinks it has a better chance of working than a lot of liberals fear.

Kevin Drum makes the point that the speech was kind of dull, especially the Eisenhower proof-text. I actually liked that part, along with its general sobriety. It was important to situate the Afghan policy in the larger constellation of American policy challenges, foreign and domestic. It was also important to downplay nation building and to explicitly set modest goals for our presence.

His late-speech run-through of the American Exceptionalism rhetoric was a little tired, but even then the emphasis was much better than what we're used to hearing: America leads by example, by diplomacy, and by our willingness to be just as serious about preventing and ending conflicts as about fighting them. All that crap about our values driving our policy and so forth has, as far as I can tell, nothing to do with the concrete problems of the Afghan conflict, but it's presidential boilerplate at this late date. The American pundit class, if not the people as a whole, demand the most outrageous moral flattery to help any foreign policy change go down smoothly. At least Obama's nationalism, however fanciful its depiction, is rooted in a somewhat sound and sustainable understanding of what we can and should do in the world. It's more about consensus than crusading, more about development of good than destruction of evil.

As for the laying out of a timeline for the escalation and eventual withdrawal, it was obviously going to set Planet Wingnut on fire. However, it's worth remembering how this all started. There was no policy of regime change for Afghanistan. We demanded that Bin Laden and his lieutenants be handed over to us and the Taliban refused, so we invaded. Thanks to the truly world-historical incompetence of Donald Rumsfeld and his president, the needed soldiers were never moved to Torah Borah and the Pakistan border and Bin Laden, who had fully expected to die, walked out unmolested. This signal failure led to the morphing of the Afghan mission into something that was never clearly defined and had little to do with the initial decision to invade.

R.W. Apple was widely mocked for introducing the term "quagmire" about three weeks into Operation Enduring Freedom, but surely not he nor anyone who either derided or defended that prognosis could have imagined having 100,000 American soldiers in that country eight years later, with Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar still at large. And it's telling that in all the swirling debate about the new policy, almost no one ever mentions the high-value targets who provoked it in the first place. There's plenty of vague talk about plots against America and safe havens, even as Al Qaeda regroups in other semi-lawless areas, of which the world affords many.

So ultimately the question will not be one of time limits per se--anyone who believes we'll be getting out starting in July 2011 come hell or high water will be very interested in some Florida beachfront property I can show them--but of defining success in narrow and realistic enough terms that we have a fighting chance to start getting our and turning our attention elsewhere soon.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 9:28 AM
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