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Obama’s quagmire

- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 15, 2009

President Obama is in Asia - instead of at home making a key foreign-policy decision. He has said he will not clarify his strategy in Afghanistan until he returns Thursday, thereby further kicking the Afghan can down the road. This is an astonishing act of cowardice and dithering. Unless the president quickly turns around his political fortunes, his administration will be mired in failure.

It has been several months since Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, U.S. commander in Afghanistan, asked for an additional surge of 40,000 soldiers. Those forces would bolster the 68,000 American troops already fighting - and dying - in the mountains of Afghanistan. Without the fresh infusion of manpower, Gen. McChrystal says the Taliban may regain control of the country.

Gen. McChrystal's counterinsurgency campaign seeks to emulate the successful strategy in Iraq. He wants to provide security and stability - and thus win over the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. Gen. McChrystal hopes to achieve this by protecting civilians from rising Taliban attacks and implementing a clear-and-hold policy.

Mr. Obama has had more than enough time to make a decision on how to proceed. Yet the administration is paralyzed; there are a variety of conflicting voices. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. supports a smaller military footprint that relies on drone attacks and U.S. Special Forces. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton wants to grant Gen. McChrystal's request. Mr. Obama explores hybrid alternatives. He remains unsure and indecisive; he cannot pull the proverbial trigger.

Yet his primary concern is not the safety of the troops or the best course for victory: He is mostly preoccupied by his own political fortunes. He realizes that the politics of the surge threaten to fracture his liberal base and turn the antiwar pacifist left against him. That would break his presidency, similar to how the anti-Vietnam War peace movement splintered the Democratic Party and derailed Lyndon B. Johnson's presidency.

Mr. Obama is stuck in a political quagmire of his own making; he is reaping what he has sown. During the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, he aggressively courted liberal progressives by presenting himself as the antithesis of President George W. Bush. Then-candidate Obama vowed he was not a militaristic, unilateralist cowboy. He promised to end the war in Iraq, close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, restore America's frayed relationships with our European allies and enact a multilateral foreign policy.

In short, Mr. Obama promised to go back to a pre-Sept. 11, 2001, world. America could - and would - return to the quiet life. The antiwar left embraced his message. He became their man, and he rode their support all the way to the White House.

But to Middle America, Mr. Obama articulated a very different - and somewhat contradictory - agenda. He cast himself as a pragmatic moderate who would do what Mr. Bush couldn't: eradicate al Qaeda and smash the resurgent Taliban. Hence, Mr. Obama repeatedly argued that Afghanistan (unlike Iraq) was a "war of necessity," which constituted the "central front" in the war on terror. Therefore, failure was not an option. Mr. Obama claimed that beneath his dovish veneer lay a ferocious hawk who would secure victory in Afghanistan.

Mr. Obama's great sin was that he sought to satisfy conflicting constituencies simultaneously. His slogans of "hope" and "change" were nebulous enough that liberals and moderates, peaceniks and realists, blue-state voters and red-state voters could project their own fantasies upon his candidacy.

Now he is trapped in his own Machiavellian strategy. If he rejects Gen. McChrystal's proposal or agrees to a surge-lite policy of perhaps deploying 20,000 additional troops incrementally over a long period of time, he rightly will be seen by most Americans as having abandoned one of his seminal campaign promises. He will be widely perceived as a mendacious and weak leader who does not have the nerve to win the war. More important, such half measures would sacrifice precious American blood and treasure in a lackluster counterinsurgency campaign destined to fail.

On the other hand, if Mr. Obama embraces the surge option or even a surge-lite policy, he will face a massive liberal rebellion. Antiwar progressives will view him as a traitor; his electoral coalition will be shattered. Like Johnson, his escalation of a military conflict abroad will exacerbate deep divisions within his own party and the country.

It is increasingly apparent that Mr. Obama lacks the experience, character and judgment to be the leader of the Free World. During the campaign, he was a one-act play rallying the anti-Bush sentiment and was given a free pass by a cheering, sycophantic media. The press failed to expose his incompetence But such colossal deceit has a short life span.

Mr. Obama's waffling over Afghanistan is a failure of the highest order.

Our brave men and women have been confronting a fanatical enemy for months without a coherent strategy or even assurances from the commander in chief that he is committed to victory. How can the rank and file henceforth believe in their supreme commander - and how can our enemies fear him? In a few short months, "hope" and "change" have become despair and stagnation.

Jeffrey T. Kuhner is a columnist at The Washington Times and president of the Edmund Burke Institute. He is the daily radio host of "Lunch Times With Jeff Kuhner" on WTNT 570-AM (www.talk570.com) from noon to 3 p.m.