Fouad Ajami: Petraeus and Obama's Uncertain Trumpet





[Mr. Ajami is professor of Middle East Studies at The Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies and an adjunct senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.]

The chroniclers tell us that Lyndon Johnson never took to the Vietnam War. He prosecuted it, it became his war, but it was, in LBJ's language, a "bitch of a war." He fought it with a premonition that it could wreck his Great Society programs.

He had a feel for the popular mood. "I don't think the people of the country know much about Vietnam, and I think they care a hell of a lot less." We know how that war ended, and the choreography of President Obama relieving Gen. Stanley McChrystal of his command notwithstanding, there is to this Afghan campaign a sense of eerie historical repetition. There is no need to overdo the analogy, but there is a good measure of similarity to that earlier ill-fated campaign. There is the same ambivalence at the top, a disjunction between the military battlefield and the political world at home.

So a beleaguered president has replaced a talented but indiscreet military commander with a talented, discreet successor. The large questions about the war persist, and there persists as well that unsettling sense that the president is prosecuting a war he can neither abandon nor fight to a convincing victory.

For Mr. Obama, this Afghan campaign doubtless bears the crippling impact of its beginnings. It was out of Mr. Obama's desire to demonstrate that he was no pacifist that his commitment to the Afghan war had begun. It was in the midst of his run for the presidency that he was to draw a distinction between "stupid wars" (Iraq as the primary exhibit) and wars worth fighting.

Afghanistan became the good war of necessity. He was to sharpen the distinction between these two wars in the course of his first year in office. On the face of it, this was a president claiming a distant war, making it his own. But there was a lack of fit between this call on Afghanistan and the president's overall summons to his country.

Mr. Obama's is an uncertain trumpet. He had vowed to fight in Afghanistan while belittling the challenge that radical Islamism posed to American security. He had told his devotees that the anti-Americanism in the Islamic world was certain to blow over in the aftermath of his election. He had attributed much of that anti-Americanism to the Iraq war and to the ideological zeal of his predecessors. His foreign policy was to explicitly rest on a rupture with the foreign policy of the past. Like Jimmy Carter's in the 1970s, this was to be a foreign policy of contrition for America's presumed sins...


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