In politics, as in everyday life, good deeds often don’t go unpunished. Intent on bridging the toxic ideological divide in the US, Barack Obama has chosen to govern from the center. As the debate over healthcare legislation glaringly illustrates, however, the political center has all but vanished in domestic politics. The president is about to discover that it is quickly disappearing in foreign affairs as well. It is not in his or the country’s interest to accelerate the process.
For the first seven months of the Obama administration, the American public has ignored international issues. This is largely because the financial crisis, healthcare reform, and sundry other initiatives of the new administration have dominated the public’s attention. But it also reflects the surprisingly deft way in which a relatively inexperienced but culturally sensitive president has stanched the torrent of anti-American sentiment in the Arab-Islamic world and addressed in a calm and statesmanlike demeanor the recent political turmoil in Iran and North Korea’s latest charm offensive.
This placid state of affairs is bound to change, however, because concerns about the president’s expanded military effort in Afghanistan are beginning to percolate with the American public, most of which believes the United States will not win that war. According to a Washington Post-ABC news poll, roughly 70 percent of Democrats now oppose the war. However, an equal number of Republicans believe the war is worth fighting. As casualties in Afghanistan mount, public attitudes will surely harden, which will complicate the president’s decision about reinforcing the US military presence there.
In contrast to the Bush administration’s prosecution of a “dumb war,” Mr. Obama has defined the conflict in Afghanistan as the “good” or “necessary” war. But what he fails to see is that Afghanistan is becoming his war and that the public will hold him rather than George Bush accountable for its management. Even if the president provides civil-military authorities in Afghanistan with additional resources, it will take years to defeat the insurgency and build a stable, secure, economically productive state. Meanwhile, the president will be the whipping boy of both the left and the right.
One of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles the US faces in Afghanistan is public disaffection with the intervention. Proponents of staying the course remind critics that most Afghans support the reconstruction effort. While that may be true, the country remains a cauldron of ethnic hatreds, principally between Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group, and Tajiks, who control the levers of power, including the intelligence service. A major objective of General Stanley A. McChrystal, the new US commander in Afghanistan, is to increase security in the country, but civilian casualties will persist. Eventually, even those who back reconstruction are likely to resist the American occupiers, just as they opposed the British and Russian infidels.
Trust in the Kabul government is a second problem. The accusations of fraud on the part of President Hamid Karzai that have accompanied the August 20 election will surely hamper the process of nation-building. Karzai’s politically motivated alliance with detested warlords, including an Islamist who apparently welcomed Osama bin Laden to Afghanistan in the 1990s, is hardly a harbinger of good governance. His election will surely taint the US occupation, for Afghans will perceive the US to be supporting an illegitimate government.
The indifference of Pakistan to the counterinsurgency operation is a third impediment. Obama has reprised the Bush-era rhetoric that the war is necessary to prevent al-Qaeda from returning to Afghanistan, but the leaders of that organization have already ensconced themselves in Pakistan. Despite its recent offensive against the Taliban in the Swat Valley, Pakistan still provides refuge to al-Qaeda as well as Afghan militants in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas because they represent a proxy force against India in Kashmir. Clearly, the bulk of Pakistan’s military forces will remain deployed on its border with India. Indeed, the New York Times reported that Pakistan has illegally modified American-made Harpoon anti-ship missiles (which the government denies) so that they can be used to attack land targets in India.
Expanding the US presence in Afghanistan will only deepen the political morass in which the president finds himself on healthcare reform and other domestic policies. It is only a matter of time before the same liberal anti-war protestors who railed against Bush’s war in Iraq will take to the streets against Obama, abetted by left-wing Democrats eager to preserve their congressional seats. Mindful of the approaching mid-term elections, right-wing Republicans such as Vice President Dick Cheney, who have criticized Obama’s attempt to redeem the country’s international image as apologizing for America, will seize upon every setback in Afghanistan to indict the president for failing to defend the nation’s security. In such a polarized environment, the political process will be virtually immobilized and the president who aspired to bring America together will end up the victim of its ideological intractability.
By defining Afghanistan as a war of necessity rather than a war of choice, President Obama hopes to correct the misguided decision of the Bush administration to invade Iraq. But history cannot be rewritten. Moreover, the costs of prolonging the American occupation – both domestic and international – outweigh the imagined benefits. Under the circumstances, Obama should acknowledge conditions in Afghanistan as they are rather than as he would like them to be. The wiser course is to set a deadline for withdrawal that will allow sufficient time to train the Afghan army and police force and develop an institutional infrastructure that will facilitate the process of governance.
Such an approach, which would mirror the staged withdrawal from Iraq, might not satisfy Democratic voters and legislators who desire an immediate pullout or Republicans like South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint who are intent on delivering the president a political death blow. But it just might receive the backing of thoughtful Republican moderates like John McCain, Lindsay Graham, and former Senator Chuck Hagel, with whom the president should make common cause. A variant of this approach has already received the endorsement of conservative columnist George Will , which may also help to diminish the criticism of Mr. Obama from the right. Enlisting the support of the political opposition may also turn out to be politically fortuitous for the president if it permits him to rebuild the pragmatic center and, at least in foreign policy, restore some measure of bipartisanship In American politics.
Hugh De Santis, a former career officer in the Department of State and public policy analyst, is a consultant on international security affairs. His views do not represent those of the US government.