On Afghanistan, Obama bends the truth curve

Three agonizing months of deliberation, analysis and internal debate in the White House and this is the best they can do?Wow. Barack Obama has made his Afghanistan decision and it stinks of pure political posturing. He's attempting to split the political baby -- as he has done so often as both a candidate and as president -- by taking a half measure designed to satisfy everyone. The "hawks" on Afghanistan get 30,000 more troops -- the very low end of General McChrystal's request -- that shows he's serious about national security. But the doves get a huge concession, too -- a strict timetable of 18 months that guarantees withdrawal just in time for the President's 2012 reelection campaign.

Sound like a coincidence? Hardly. The President knows that he must have his left-wing base (like Code Pink and MoveOn.org) energized on his behalf -- and the sight of returning troops from Afghanistan will work wonders for his campaign. In attempting to satisfy the hawks and the doves he's actually satisfied nobody -- and put our mission in Afghanistan at grave risk.

This strikes me as the essence of moral bankruptcy -- to send our troops into battle with a timeline that is unworkable, and that has been set for purely political reasons. Though the President says that the 18 month timeline is designed to spur the Karzai government into action, anyone who understands the challenge of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan knows that this is just window dressing for a politically expedient decision. The President wants an out, and wants to signal clearly to his base that he doesn't believe in the "long war" thesis of the Bush Administration. His speech yesterday at West Point in announcing the Afghan surge was notable in its thinly veiled swipes at his predecessor, and Obama can't seem to bring himself to be the leader of all America. He is partisan to the core -- and his decision to "surge and then leave" smacks of partisan politics. It's truly difficult to stomach.

Even worse, Obama seems to be bent on repeating the worst mistakes of the Vietnam War, when President Lyndon Johnson embarked on a war that had no clear definition of victory, was waged in a tightly controlled manner on the basis of political considerations, and was based on the propping up of a government that never had the full support of the people. Vietnam destroyed the presidency of LBJ, and left a dark shadow on U.S. national security policy for a generation to come. Will Afghanistan end any better?

It is hard to envision success on the basis of the Obama decision. Experts in counterinsurgency are clear that it is a long war strategy, and that it requires a sustained commitment that can last a decade or more. Though it led to decisive gains quickly in Iraq, in Afghanistan the challenge is different -- and doesn't lend itself to an 18 month victory. Afghanistan is vast, remote, mountainous and tribal. Just 10 miles out of Kabul, the Karzai government controls almost nothing. Basing success on standing up the Afghan National Government is dubious at best. And I can't see how it can be done in 18 months -- with an enemy that understands how long they need to wait to see you off at the airport.

It's difficult not to be cynical looking at this decision. The commentary this morning reflects this cynicism, and will only deepen Obama's political trouble here at home. Germany's "Der Spiegel" has a great opinion piece today that is worth reading:

Never before has a speech by President Barack Obama felt as false as his Tuesday address announcing America's new strategy for Afghanistan. It seemed like a campaign speech combined with Bush rhetoric -- and left both dreamers and realists feeling distraught...

An additional 30,000 US soldiers are to march into Afghanistan -- and then they will march right back out again. America is going to war -- and from there it will continue ahead to peace. It was the speech of a Nobel War Prize laureate.

For each troop movement, Obama had a number to match. US strength in Afghanistan will be tripled relative to the Bush years, a fact that is sure to impress hawks in America. But just 18 months later, just in time for Obama's re-election campaign, the horror of war is to end and the draw down will begin. The doves of peace will be let free.

The speech continued in that vein. It was as though Obama had taken one of his old campaign speeches and merged it with a text from the library of ex-President George W. Bush. Extremists kill in the name of Islam, he said, before adding that it is one of the "world's great religions." He promised that responsibility for the country's security would soon be transferred to the government of President Hamid Karzai -- a government which he said was "corrupt." The Taliban is dangerous and growing stronger. But "America will have to show our strength in the way that we end wars," he added.

It was a dizzying combination of surge and withdrawal, of marching to and fro. The fast pace was reminiscent of plays about the French revolution: Troops enter from the right to loud cannon fire and then they exit to the left. And at the end, the dead are left on stage.

But in this case, the public was more disturbed than entertained. Indeed, one could see the phenomenon in a number of places in recent weeks: Obama's magic no longer works. The allure of his words has grown weaker.

It is not he himself who has changed, but rather the benchmark used to evaluate him. For a president, the unit of measurement is real life. A leader is seen by citizens through the prism of their lives -- their job, their household budget, where they live and suffer. And, in the case of the war on terror, where they sometimes die.

Political dreams and yearnings for the future belong elsewhere. That was where the political charmer Obama was able to successfully capture the imaginations of millions of voters. It is a place where campaigners -- particularly those with a talent for oration -- are fond of taking refuge. It is also where Obama set up his campaign headquarters, in an enormous tent called "Hope."

In his speech on America's new Afghanistan strategy, Obama tried to speak to both places. It was two speeches in one. That is why it felt so false. Both dreamers and realists were left feeling distraught.

The American president doesn't need any opponents at the moment. He's already got himself.

Obama is out of his depth. He's a president in permanent campaign mode, who thinks that promising everything to everyone still works. What he seems to forget is that he is president now, and his decisions have consequences, and that won't be forgotten by the time he gets to his next campaign stop.

Our leader is an empty suit, without the character to be honest with the American people. His decision is based on a lie -- that we can have quick success in Afghanistan -- and he seems to think that we won't notice if it doesn't turn out ok. His health care reform is similarly based on lies and half-truths. Its as if he thinks he can bend the truth curve, and that down will suddenly be up and up will suddenly be down.

Actually, he's right about that: Obama was suddenly up, and now he's suddenly down. And it will be a long, long fall.