RNC's Steele: right or wrong on Afghanistan?

RNC Chair Michael Steele’s recent comments on Afghanistan – which he derisively called “Obama’s war” while questioning the potential for victory – found pockets of support across the political spectrum.  On the left, those who oppose the war on ideological grounds agreed with Steele’s conclusions (if not his logic) that this is not a war we should be fighting.  On the more libertarian right, many who believe that America’s foreign policy is “extraconstitutional” -- overly aggressive, idealistic and beyond what the Founder’s intended -- view the Afghan campaign as a case study in federal government overreach.   If it is true that politics make strange bedfellows, Steel’s unscripted comments found a nexus of agreement from elements on the left and the right: This is a war poorly conceived, without legitimacy, and with little chance of success. I disagree with this.  While I recognize fully the difficulty of the mission, and understand that Afghanistan has been the “graveyard of empires” for a millennium or more, I also believe that Barack Obama was correct in 2008 when he called Afghanistan a war “of necessity”.  Afghanistan was the birthplace of the 9/11 attacks; the Taliban regime provided sanctuary and material support to Osama Bin Laden, Al Qaeda and its global network of Jihadists. The initial invasion of Afghanistan in 2001-2002 was a critical blow to this network, and provided the United States with both a measure of revenge and security after 9/11.  It also replaced the Taliban, a brutal fundamentalist Islamic regime that demanded strict fealty to Islamic law with a secular, Western-facing government.  To be sure, the government of Hamid Karzai is no model of Jeffersonian democracy.  But let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good in this case – and Karzai is quite good when compared to the rule of his predecessor, the Taliban’s Mullah Omar.

More importantly, I reject the position taken by many libertarian-oriented conservatives that the war in Afghanistan is an example of government overreach and an unconstitutional exercise of executive power.  To be sure, there are ample grounds for a substantive debate on presidential war powers and the Constitution – a debate that has heated up significantly since 9/11.   Those who take a “strict constructionist” view see Congress’ power to declare war in Article I, Section 8 as a clear limit on the use of force: without a formal declaration of war against a defined enemy, the commitment of the U.S. military to combat is essentially proscribed.  However, the case for this is not as clear as it may seem.  During the debate on this topic at the Constitutional Convention, the Founders clearly intended for the executive as Commander in Chief to have the power to “repel sudden attacks” and, in the process of providing for the “common defense”, would be able to act swiftly and decisively in the case of a national emergency.  The Founders instinctively understood that while a check on the president’s ability to unilaterally wage war was desirable, it should not prohibit decisive action when the nation’s security was under threat.

It is my belief that not only does the executive have the power to wage war in Afghanistan without a formal declaration of war, he has the constitutional responsibility to do so.  The most important aspect of the president’s job description as found in Article II of the Constitution is in Section 2:  his role as the Commander in Chief of the armed forces.  As such, he is principally responsible for ensuring the nation’s security, and enjoys wide latitude in utilizing the military in the prosecution of U.S. foreign policy.  This has been particularly true in the latter half of the 20th century, where the U.S. has waged full-scale war in Korea, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf without a formal declaration of war.  Today, the rise of transnational terror networks and so-called “asymmetrical” warfare which targets civilians without warning has made traditional forms of extended debate on foreign policy increasingly impractical.  Terrorism and global Jihad has made traditional declarations of war truly a relic of an earlier age.

Because of this new reality, the nature of Congressional consent to military action has changed. While presidents are waging war without formal declarations, they do so also with the consent (and political cover) of Congressional approval.  Recall that on September 14, 2001 – just days after the attacks on 9/11 – the Congress passed S.J. Res. 23, which authorized the president to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001”.   Later, in 2002, the Congress passed the Iraq War Resolution, which gave Congressional approval for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  While short of formal declarations of war, both of these resolutions provide ample authority for the president to wage war in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Contrary to the opinion of Michael Steele, this is not Obama’s war.  It is America’s war.  And the stakes could not be higher.  The elimination of a sanctuary for Al Qaeda in Afghanistan is a central national security issue for our future.  One of the few correct decisions that President Obama has made since taking office is recommitting the nation to the war in Afghanistan.  His recent appointment of General David Petraeus to take command is a good step in the right direction.  Now he must renounce any time tables for withdrawal and allow the U.S. military to destroy Al Qaeda and the Taliban once and for all.

The Constitution requires the federal government to provide for the common defense of the nation and its interests – principally the protection of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.  It is hard to imagine pursuing much happiness in the aftermath of a nuclear or biological attack in Times Square carried out by radical Islamists from a base in Afghanistan.

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 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.

For Obama, Afghanistan is a bridge too far

There has been no doubt for weeks now in my mind that President Obama has been planning a retreat from Afghanistan. All the dithering and hand-wringing over the elections, Harmad Karzai and the corrupt Afghan government was just a way to put distance between himself and the "decision" -- or series of decisions -- to create plausible blame on someone else for abandoning the Afghan mission. For those who understand Obama's true goals, this decision was made months ago, and the "high level" discussions within the administration have been nothing but air cover (no pun intended) for the abandonment of the erstwhile war "of necessity". Obama is a craven opportunist, and he sees nothing but messiness in Afghanistan in the years ahead. It will get in the way of his massive goals to restructure America to his liking -- and that's a bridge too far. The reality is that Obama doesn't see the Islamic terrorist threat as particularly significant, in in that vein he has much company among the left-wing intelligentsia (a contradiction in terms, I know.) This is a president who can't bring himself to call the Fort Hood massacre a "terrorist attack". Indeed, this is president who can't bear to even utter the word "terrorism". He doesn't seem to want to deal with the realities of the world we live in, preferring instead to craft a world of platitudes where our words can somehow influence their deeds. Afghanistan, it turns out, is just another "Bush" legacy that threatens to give America a black eye and derail Obama's need to "fix" us in a way that makes us a kinder, fairer place. The redistributionist goals here at home mean we can't really be bothered to fight abroad -- why waste all that energy and money when we can use it to make payments to the Democratic base?

Afghanistan has thus joined Iraq as a "war of choice" and Obama is choosing to bail. According to Jules Crittendon this morning:

WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama does not plan to accept any of the Afghanistan war options presented by his national security team, pushing instead for revisions to clarify how and when U.S. troops would turn over responsibility to the Afghan government, a senior administration official said Wednesday.

That stance comes in the midst of forceful reservations about a possible troop buildup from the U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, according to a second top administration official.

In strongly worded classified cables to Washington, Eikenberry said he had misgivings about sending in new troops while there are still so many questions about the leadership of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

So Obama will temporize and pick a "middle ground" that rejects General McChrystal's recommendations in favor of a choice that reduces the American footprint and allows us to "retreat with honor". Of course, we've seen this movie before -- we tried retreat with honor in Vietnam and it failed miserably. But past is never prelude with this president, and in his desire to protect his domestic agenda, Obama will make moves that will forestall the fall of Kabul long enough to make it appear that it is someone else's fault.

The script has been written -- now its just a matter of playing out the act. Lots of serious debate, a sober decision. And a strategic retreat.

Of course, this doesn't change the fact that Afghanistan is the crucible of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and will again become a working base for attacks against the West. Perhaps the president figures he can manage this as a "law enforcement" exercise rather than a war, and send drones and cruise missiles in to try and make life difficult for the enemy. But the reality is that leaving Afghanistan will result in a more dangerous world for America.

And what's the point of health care reform in a nation where 9/11-scale attacks -- perhaps with WMD -- are occuring on a regular basis?

Dems flounder on Afghanistan

Evidence continues to mount demonstrating how much better Democrats are at campaigning than governing. Legislative chaos, Gitmo waffling, missile defense implosion, metastasizing debt, and skeletons tumbling out of the closet (Van Jones, Acorn etc.) to name just a few items continue to enhance the Democrats’ reputation as the “Gang that Couldn’t Shoot Straight”- great at running for office, but terrible at running the government. The best- or we should say the worst- is yet to come however as the nation watches the bizarre unfolding of an Obama Afghanistan strategy with a high potential for disaster.

Six months ago Obama with much fanfare informed the country that following an exhaustive review of the situation in Afghanistan- consultations with Congress, military experts, allies etc.- he had settled on a “new strategy” that would bring success to what he had long trumpeted as the “right war” or the “must win war”. As further evidence of his ‘hands-on” decisiveness he fired the U.S. commander in Afghanistan and appointed his own commander- General Stanley McChrystal- and instructed him to look at everything and make recommendations about what he would need to deliver success.

Now six months later Obama with much fanfare informed the country that he would conduct an exhaustive review of the situation in Afghanistan –consultations with Congress, military experts, allies etc. – and then he would announce a “new strategy” and what it would take to deliver success.

This left people scratching their heads and wondering what happened to the old “new strategy” and what about the recommendations that General McChrystal had been asked to deliver.

Well, that was then; this is now. What happened between then and now is that when General McChrystal reported that success in the “must win” war would require thirty to forty thousand additional troops the left wing of the Democratic Party went bonkers.

Up until now being “hawkish” on Afghanistan has been a “win-win” for the Democrats because it allowed them to flagellate George Bush over the “wrong war”- Iraq-while proclaiming their determination to win the “right war”.

Now that it is “put up or shut up” time on Afghanistan the Democrats are desperately seeking excuses for rejecting the advice of their handpicked general and embracing the alternative strategy of Field Marshal Joe Biden.

It isn’t easy to disguise a “cut and run “ strategy as the “Road to Victory” in the “must win” war, but the Democrats are hell-bent on putting “lipstick on the pig” any way they can.

What follows are nominees from the “Best Excuses” Contest being run by the Democrats; they range from the patently disgraceful to the merely laughable. The media has attributed most of them to “unnamed White House sources”.

1. General McChrystal being “just a soldier” doesn’t see the “Big Picture” (unlike Rahm Emanuel and David Axlerod). 2. Colin Powell agrees with Field Marshal Biden. 3. This war has lasted longer than World War II. 4. The Taliban isn’t the real enemy. Its’ Al Qaeda and they’re mostly in Pakistan. 5. Al Qaeda is also camped out in South Yemen. 6. A “surge” wouldn’t work in Afghanistan. 7. The Afghans are “drug dealers”. 8. Iran will be more reasonable when U.S. forces have left Iraq and Afghanistan. 9. Train the Afghan army, and they’ll win the war for us. 10. We have discovered corruption, and even-gasp- election fraud in Afghanistan. What a howler: guys from Chicago “shocked” by corruption and vote stealing! Should we have called off World War II because Joe Stalin wasn’t democratically elected? 11. The polls for Obama and Afghanistan are heading south. 12. Best for last Dept: How can a Nobel peace Prize winner (go figure) escalate a nasty old war? Wouldn’t John Lennon want us to: “Give Peace a Chance”?

What we are witnessing is the triumph of politics over the national interest thanks to a Democratic Party obsessed by the ghosts of Viet Nam- seeing false analogies everywhere- and terrified that Barack Obama could become another Lyndon Johnson.

All of this has the making of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Obama- true to form- will try to have it both ways splitting the difference between his military and political advisors. In doing so he will –like Lyndon Johnson before him- be too clever by half and spawn a series of self-defeating, half measures that will bring disaster upon himself, his party, and his country. _________________________________________________________________________

William Moloney is a Centennial Institute Fellow and former Colorado Education Commissioner. His columns have appeared in the Wall St Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Washington Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post.