Barack Obama is probably not used to thinking of John McCain as an ally, given that McCain ran against him last year and since the election has opposed every one of the administration's initiatives, even going so far as to abandon previous support for cap-and-trade out of spite. Lindsay Graham and quasi-Democrat Joe Lieberman don't really seem to be Obama's friends either. Yet, here the three senators were on The Wall Street Journal op-ed page -- also not typically where Obama finds his allies -- insisting that's exactly what they were, in at least one situation: "The president and his allies -- and we count ourselves among them on this issue -- must invest significantly greater effort to explain why, as the president recently put it, Afghanistan is a 'war of necessity.'"
In context, it's clear that this neocon troika is not trying to help but instead is concern-trolling. They're not supporting the administration's policy in Afghanistan. Instead, they're attempting to prejudge the still-ongoing strategy-review process in order to demand "a significant increase in U.S. forces" that they claim will "commit the 'decisive force' that Gen. [Stanley] McChrystal tells us carries the least risk of failure."
Indeed, the senators go so far as to suggest that Obama has already promised to support such an increase in troop levels, writing that "Obama was right when he said last year that 'You don't muddle through the central front on terror. ? You don't muddle through stamping out the Taliban.'" Ironically, when Obama said that, he was in part responding to McCain who back in 2003 justified the Bush administration's neglect of the Afghanistan situation, saying, "I'm not as concerned as I am about Iraq today -- obviously, or I'd be talking about Afghanistan -- but I believe that if [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai can make the progress that he is making, that in the long term we may muddle through in Afghanistan."
Hypocrisy aside, the fact of the matter is that Obama campaigned on a pledge to withdraw forces from Iraq while sending additional troops to Afghanistan, and that process is already under way. The current debate isn't about the president's fulfillment of a campaign pledge: It's about going beyond that pledge to send even more soldiers.
And when it comes to making that decision and considering going down that route, the administration might want to keep in mind that its "allies" are discredited knee-jerk warmongers whose national-security thinking shouldn't be taken seriously. After all, the McLiebergraham analysis of Afghanistan doesn't actually stem from any particular study of the country's situation. Indeed, their op-ed doesn't actually say anything about Afghanistan. You could run through the piece and copy and paste "Iraq" or "Yemen" or anyplace else in lieu of Afghanistan. Why not simply say "more troops will not guarantee success in Somalia, but a failure to send them is a guarantee of failure" instead?
As I argued last year, McCain's approach to foreign policy is entirely vacuous except for a single-minded love of the application of military force. His mind wanders the globe in search of newsworthy political controversies into which he can insert his one suggestion: We should use more force. We didn't get the 1999 invasion of Serbia he wanted, or the various wars against Iran or North Korea, or even perhaps the aggression toward Russia -- "We are all Georgians," remember? -- that he's at times suggested. But we did get the disastrous invasion of Iraq that was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people at the cost of hundreds of billions of dollars. At no time does McCain urge caution or restraint, or even evince any understanding that a world exists outside the escalating series of dominoes that are bound to tumble if we don't immediately ramp up our military deployments. Thus in 2003, Afghanistan could be shrugged off in order to better argue that Iraq should be invaded. And in 2007, Afghanistan was shrugged off again in order to better argue for escalation in Iraq. But in 2009, suddenly any refusal to escalate in Afghanistan will be a "devastating setback for our nation" that "would inevitably further destabilize neighboring, nuclear Pakistan."
(Interestingly, just about nobody in Pakistan agrees with McCain's analysis. If anything, they fear that stepped-up pressure in Afghanistan will push militants across the border into Pakistan.)
What we need to do in Afghanistan is reject the kind of discredited neocon logic that says the only way to deal with the problem of the moment is with maximum force, and to do anything otherwise is abject surrender. Declining to escalate our military presence further does not require us to abandon the country. But our commitment to Afghanistan needs to be proportionate to the extent of our interests there -- real, but limited. We should also recognize that Afghanistan is primarily a country inhabited by Afghans and that the possibilities there are limited by Afghans' own actions. Insofar as the leaders in Kabul seem genuinely committed to reducing corruption, improving governance, and building state capabilities, it makes a lot of sense for us to help with money, manpower, firepower, and other things we're in a position to deliver. But there is certainly no reason to proclaim an absolute commitment to maximalist goals and then spend time worrying about the state of our relationship with President Karzai. A world in which inept or corrupt Afghan leaders let their country slide into chaos would, of course, be worse than a world in which brilliant leaders, assisted by the United States, build a well-governed country. But America can survive in either kind of world, and which world we find ourselves in is only secondarily up to us.
Most of all, the administration needs to recall that the situation in Afghanistan has gotten as bad as it has in large part precisely as a result of the last administration listening to the counsel of people like McCain, Lieberman, and Graham on Iraq. It would be doubly tragic to see those errors compounded by taking their advice again.
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