After all the agonizing on America's future course in Afghanistan, President Obama at last appears poised to lay out what it will be. Having enjoyed his Thanksgiving turkey, he will attempt to digest the political and diplomatic turkey left on his plate.
It is not a very appetizing one — likely to be some combination of propping up the Karzai regime of questionable legitimacy and dependability in Kabul while also trying to root out the remnants of the al-Qaida perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks.
The president is unlikely to swallow whole the 40,000-plus troop buildup sought by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, nor limit the American role to fighting terrorists there. Neither the hawks, who want a huge Bush-like military surge, nor the doves, who favor getting out of Afghanistan now, will be satisfied.
Obama's very deliberation in addressing the decision over the last month suggests that if he had a freer hand he might just push the plate away and refuse to eat. That is, he would absorb the lesson of the drawn-out Vietnam fiasco of four decades ago and cut American losses while there is still time.
Telling the American people that their country continues to have a responsibility to fight terrorism but not to rescue a corrupt and dysfunctional Afghan government would test Obama's considerable persuasive and oratorical talents. However, it might square with public opinion polls that say a majority of Americans believe the war in Afghanistan is not worth fighting. But such a message doubtless would unleash charges of surrender and cowardice from Republican leaders in and out of Congress, and some Democrats as well. Were the president to bite the bullet on the prospect of an endless commitment in Afghanistan, he could cite the incredible financial burden it would impose on his own country.
In terms of catching the nation's attention, and that of the world at large, nothing would do the job more dramatically than Obama announcing that Uncle Sam at last was turning his attention to the demanding problems on his own doorstep. To play an effective role on the world stage, he could say, America first had to assure its own fiscal stability.
But while Barack Obama as a candidate in 2008 was able to talk persuasively of radical change from the interventionist foreign policy of George W. Bush, Obama as president has shown more pragmatism. Incumbency has a way of working that metamorphosis on politicians.
So what we are likely to hear from him with the decision on America's future course in Afghanistan is a carefully crafted message about what he would like to do but what political and military reality requires him to do instead. Delivering such a message is one of the most difficult challenges any political leader ever faces. Obama has, however, demonstrated remarkable skill in dealing with other trying issues that divide the country, notably race. Getting the American people to swallow a bitter pill of continued military involvement in Afghanistan will be a match for his talents.
It's easier to play the jingoistic card of America's mission as the world's sole superpower to set things right than it is to explain and defend a more nuanced but practical course of action by a nation of suddenly limited resources. Thus, not only Barack Obama's long-waited decision on Afghanistan but also the manner in which he justifies it, will determine the degree of public support and acceptance it will receive at home. A split decision on a new troop surge likely will be a hard sell, leaving nobody satisfied.
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