Obama, the Anti-Churchill?

December 10, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Fareed Zakaria

winston_churchill_01 If you take out just one sentence, Barack Obama’s speech on Afghanistan last week was all about focusing and limiting the scope of the U.S. mission in that country. The objectives he detailed were exclusively military: to deny al-Qaeda a haven, reverse the Taliban’s momentum and strengthen the Kabul government’s security forces. The nation that he was interested in building, he explained, was this one.

And then there was that one line: “I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan.” Here lies the tension in Obama’s policy. He wants a clearer, more discriminating foreign policy, one that pares the vast commitments and open-ended interventions of the Bush era, perhaps one that is more disciplined than Bill Clinton’s approach to the world. (On the campaign trail, Obama repeatedly invoked George H.W. Bush as the president whose foreign policy he admired most.) But America is in a war that is not going well, and scaling back now would look like cutting and running. Obama is searching for a post-imperial policy in the midst of an imperial crisis. The qualified surge — send in troops to regain the momentum but then draw down — is his answer to this dilemma.

This first year of his presidency has been a window into Obama’s worldview. Once most presidents get hold of the bully pulpit, they cannot resist the temptation to become Winston Churchill. They gravitate toward grand rhetoric about freedom and tyranny and embrace the moral drama of their role as leaders of the free world. Not Obama. He has been cool and calculating, whether dealing with Russia, Iran, Iraq or Afghanistan. Obama is a realist by temperament, learning and instinct. More than any president since Richard Nixon, he has focused on defining American interests carefully, providing resources to achieve them and keeping his eyes on the prize.

“In the end,” the president said last Tuesday, “our security and leadership does not come solely from the strength of our arms.” He explained that America’s economic and technological vigor underpinned its ability to play a world role. At a small lunch with a group of columnists before his speech last week, he made clear to us that he did not want to run two wars. He seemed to be implying that the struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan were not the crucial path to America’s long-term security. He explained that challenges at home — economic growth, technological innovation, education reform — were at the heart of maintaining America’s status as a superpower. In fact, throughout history great nations have lost their way by getting bogged down in imperial missions far from home that crippled their will, strength and focus. (Sometimes even when they won they lost: Britain prevailed in the Boer War, but it broke the back of the empire.)

It is clear that Obama is attempting something quite ambitious — to reorient U.S. foreign policy toward something less extravagant and adversarial. That begins with narrowing the “war on terrorism”; scaling back the conflict with the Islamic world to those groups and countries that pose serious, direct threats to the United States; and reaching out to the rest. He has also tried to develop a better working relationship with major powers such as Russia and China, setting aside smaller issues in hopes of cooperation on bigger ones. This means departing from a bipartisan approach in which Washington’s role was to direct and hector the rest of the world, pushing regimes large and small to accept American ideas, and publicly chastising them when they refused. Obama is trying to break the dynamic that says that when an American president negotiates with the Chinese or Russians, he must return with rewards or concessions — or else he is guilty of appeasement.

For his policy to succeed, Obama will need to maintain his focus come July 2011. Afghanistan will not be transformed by that date. It will not look like France, with a strong and effective central government. The gains that will have been made will be fragile. The situation will still be somewhat unstable. But that should still be the moment to begin the transition to Afghan rule. We can find ways to secure American interests in that region more manageably. By the end of 2011, the United States will have spent 10 years, thousands of lives and $2 trillion trying to create stable, democratic governments in Iraq and Afghanistan, two of the most difficult, divided countries in the world. It will be time to move on.

Fareed Zakaria is editor of Newsweek International. His e-mail address is comments@fareedzakaria.com.

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Obama’s Exit Strategy

December 10, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

By Patrick J. Buchanan

If actions speak louder than words, President Obama is cutting America free of George Bush’s wars and coming home.

For his bottom line Tuesday night was that all U.S. forces will be out of Iraq by mid-2011 and the U.S. footprint in Afghanistan will, on that date, begin to get smaller and smaller.

Yet the gap between the magnitude of the crisis he described and the action he is taking is the Grand Canyon.

Listing the stakes in Afghanistan, Obama might have been FDR in a fireside chat about America’s war against a Japanese empire that had just smashed the fleet at Pearl Harbor, seized the Philippines, Guam and Wake, and was moving on Midway.

Consider the apocalyptic rhetoric:

“As commander in chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest …”

“If I did not think that the security of the United States and the safety of the American people were at stake …”

“For what is at stake is not simply a test of NATO’s credibility, what’s at stake is the security of our allies, and the common security of the world.”

After that preamble, one might expect the announcement of massive U.S. air strikes on some rogue nation. Yet what was the action decided upon? “I … will send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.”

To secure America and the world, not 5 percent of the Army and Marine Corps will be surged into Afghanistan for 18 months — then they will start home.
Let us put that in perspective.

During the Korean War, we had a third of a million men fighting. In 1969, we had half a million troops in Vietnam. But in Afghanistan, where the security of the world is at stake, Obama is topping out at 100,000 troops and will start drawing them down in July 2011.

“Of course, this burden is not ours alone to bear. This is not just America’s war,” said Obama. But if the burden is not ours alone to bear, where is everybody else?

Apparently, the Japanese, Chinese, Russians, Indians and Arabs do not believe their security is imperiled, because we are doing all the heavy lifting, economically and militarily.

The contradictions in Obama’s speech are jarring.

He says the new U.S. troops are to “train competent Afghan Security Forces and to partner with them so that more Afghans can get into the fight. And they will help to create the conditions for the United States to transfer responsibility to the Afghans.”

Thus, we are going to train the Afghan army and police so that, in 18 months, they can take over the fighting in a war where the security of the United States and the whole world is in the balance?

Moreover, the commitment is not open-ended, but conditional. “It will be clear to the Afghan government — and … the Afghan people — that they will ultimately be responsible for their own country. … The days of providing a blank check are over.”

Most Americans will agree the time is at hand for Afghans to take responsibility for their own country. But, if the stakes are what the president says, can we entrust a war to preserve our vital national interests and security to an Afghan army no one thinks will be able, in 18 months, to defeat a Taliban that has pushed a U.S.-NATO coalition to the brink of defeat?

At West Point, Obama did not hearken back to Gen. MacArthur’s dictum — “War’s very object is victory, not prolonged indecision. In war, there is no substitute for victory” — but to Dwight D. Eisenhower’s, that we must maintain a balance between defense and domestic programs.

Obama was not citing the Eisenhower of Normandy but President Eisenhower, who ended Korea by truce, refused to intervene in Indochina, did nothing to halt Nikita Khrushchev’s crushing of the Hungarian revolution, ordered the British, French and Israelis out of Suez, and presided over eight years of peace and prosperity, while building up America’s might and getting in lots of golf at Burning Tree.

Not a bad president. Not a bad model.

How can we reconcile Obama’s end-times rhetoric about the stakes imperiled with an 18-month surge of just 30,000 troops?

Stanley McChrystal won the argument over troops. But Obama, in his heart, does not want to fight Bush’s “Long War.” He wants to end it. Obama is not LBJ plunging into the big muddy. He is Nixon coming out, while giving an embattled ally a fighting chance to save itself.

In four years, Nixon was out of Vietnam. In 18 months, Obama says we will be out of Iraq with a steadily diminishing presence in Afghanistan.

What we heard Tuesday night was the drum roll of an exit strategy.

Mr. Buchanan is a nationally syndicated columnist and author of Churchill, Hitler, and “The Unnecessary War”: How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World, “The Death of the West,”, “The Great Betrayal,” “A Republic, Not an Empire” and “Where the Right Went Wrong.”

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