Andrew J. Bacevich: Obama's folly





[Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University.]

Which is the greater folly: To fancy that war offers an easy solution to vexing problems, or, knowing otherwise, to opt for war anyway?

In 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.

Through 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 world.

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 era.

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.

Obama's 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.

The 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?..

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:


Steve Robert Schels - 12/4/2009

Regrettably, the hyper-partisan politicization of foreign policy and national security has scuttled President Obama's ability to deliver meaningful change. Sending thousands of more troops to Afghanistan provides political cover against conservative hawks and the notification of an arbitrary and untenable withdrawal date curries favor with liberals, as does the reiteration of his desire to shut down Guantanomo and end torture, both included in his West Point speech. President Obama has revealed himself to be yet another shrewd politician. This disappoints those who believed they were getting a genuinely new type of leader.


Ernest T Spoon - 12/4/2009

War may not be good for children or other living things but it is a godsend for anyone making a career of the military.

War is particularly good for officers. Rank and pay grade during war is on a constant upward arc for those who survive combat. And there is always a cushy managerial position in the civilian world, with full retirement, at the end of a successful military career.

Sadly there is no disincentive for the current All Volunteer Force to stop waging little wars. Nor is there any incentive for our politicians, especially those who regularly get re-elected by grandstanding over flag-draped coffins, to end little wars in countries with no strategic importance to the security of the United States.

Those of us opposed to these little wars can protest all we want. It will do no good. Not enough Americans have invested loved ones in these little wars. And anyway the brainwashed professionals of the AVF like to say the reason they are killing people over there is so we have the "freedom" to protest over here. The anti-war activists' plea to "bring the boys, and girls, home safely," is only heard by its own choir, the members of the AVF are stone deaf to it.

Career upper-level civilian management in The Pentagon and the highest ranking officers of the uniformed armed services are in charge of the agenda for this "good, little war" that is Afghanistan. The president is only acting on their good advice.

History News Network