The Obama revolution, and there was the hope of one, might still succeed. But only if Barack Obama follows the model of the incredibly successful Reagan revolution and heeds the political base that made his presidency possible.
Love him or not, Ronald Reagan had at least one outstanding political virtue—his respect for the concerns of those who placed their trust in him. And whenever the political vultures that feast on power tried to lead him astray, they were fired at the insistence of Reagan or his remarkably savvy wife, Nancy. Hopefully Obama and his no-less-impressive mate, Michelle, will do the same.
The first obligation of Obama as president is to be a peacemaker, since he as a candidate seized that mantle, successfully exploiting his early opposition to the Iraq war, which his closest rival, Hillary Clinton, had supported. Obama, as opposed to her flirtations with U.S. imperial arrogance, has stuck to a vision of a complex multipolar world in which the military option is to be chosen only as a last resort.
In that regard the president is making some progress, particularly with his decision to stop provoking the Russians with an unneeded and unworkable missile defense on their border. He also seems serious about getting the Israelis and Palestinians to peace negotiations, the one issue in the Mideast that must be solved if the region’s religious fanatics are to be neutralized. And he will deserve credit if he backs his attorney general’s quest to hold the enablers of a U.S. government torture policy accountable.
The deal breaker in foreign policy so far has been his escalation of the folly of U.S. nation-building in Afghanistan that feeds rather than mitigates terrorist recruitment. That is the unmistakable, if unintended, conclusion of the 66-page declassified report of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal that became public this week. It states: “ … many indicators suggest the overall situation is deteriorating. We face not only a resilient and growing insurgency; there is also a crisis of confidence among Afghans—in both their government and the international community—that undermines our credibility and emboldens the insurgents.”
The report makes clear that the insurgents are deeply divided into three camps (one of which previously fought against the Taliban) and are basically homegrown, and provides no evidence that defeating them has anything to do with making us safer from attack by al-Qaida terrorists. Lest we forget, the 9/11 hijackers found it easier to operate from Germany, San Diego and Florida rather than forlorn Afghanistan.
The foreign influence behind the insurgency comes primarily from one of the countries we are allied with; as the report notes, “Afghanistan’s insurgency is clearly supported from Pakistan.” And the document goes on to say that the historical India-Pakistan rivalry has now been transferred to Afghanistan, where “the current Afghan government is perceived by Islamabad to be pro-Indian.” Great, another Kashmir battlefield in the making.
Obama was right during his appearances Sunday on the TV political talk shows to put the emphasis on going after what remains of Osama bin Laden’s forces in Pakistan and elsewhere rather than simply throwing more troops into the Afghanistan war. He raised the all-important question of what U.S. troops in Afghanistan are expected to do.
The McChrystal report agrees that the key is the question of mission rather than simply increasing troop numbers: “Success is achievable, but it will not be attained simply by trying harder or ‘doubling down’ on the previous strategy. Additional resources are required, but focusing on force or resource requirements misses the point entirely. The key take away from this assessment is the urgent need for a significant change to our strategy and the way we think and operate.”
There is a sobering honesty to McChrystal’s report that those who want to “win” in Afghanistan must take into account. The mission the general outlines is one of nation-building with a vengeance by U.S. forces that must forsake the safety of their bases, learn the local languages and enter into the administration of local life without being able to count on the support of the hopelessly corrupt and, after the rigged election, illegitimate Afghan government. “Afghans are frustrated and weary after eight years without evidence of the progress they anticipated,” the report says.
It’s the old winning-hearts-and-minds strategy that has never worked—as Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s point man in the region, should know from his failed efforts to win hearts and minds during the war in Vietnam, where he specialized in “rural pacification.” That was a Democrat’s war, and the base of the party, which knows better than to repeat that disastrous error, should tell the president so.