At a CNBC town-hall meeting, President Obama responded appropriately to a supporter who mentioned, in passing, that his son had just been commissioned as a U.S. Army officer. Before turning to the questioner’s principal query, the president made it a point to thank the man’s son for “his service to our country.”
So he should. So should we all. But if the account in Bob Woodward’s new book Obama’s Wars is correct, the president is asking all of our soldiers to fight for a war he is frantic to “exit.”
Throughout the protracted 2009 “strategy review,” the Woodward book reports, President Obama “repeatedly press[ed] his top military advisers for an exit plan that they never gave him.” At last, the president crafted his own withdrawal plan. “This needs to be a plan about how we’re going to hand it off and get out of Afghanistan. . . . Everything we’re doing has to be focused on how we’re going to get to the point where we can reduce our footprint. It’s in our national security interest. There cannot be any wiggle room.”
No wonder the president returned the bust of Winston Churchill to the British when he assumed office. No “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” for this leader. No talk of fighting “on the beaches . . . on the landing grounds . . . in the fields and in the streets.” No, we’re all about exit strategies.
There is no shame in declining to fight a war you believe to be misguided or futile. President Obama preens about having opposed the war in Iraq ab initio. He may have been right or wrong about that. But it was a perfectly honorable position to take. What is not honorable is sending men and women into battle when you neither seek nor expect victory.
Throughout the 2008 campaign, the president insisted that, while the Iraq war was a tragedy and a disgrace, the war in Afghanistan was necessary, right, and neglected. At a candidates’ forum during the primaries, he said, “One of the things that I think is critical, as the next president, is to make absolutely certain that we not only phase out the Iraq war but we also focus on the critical battle that we have in Afghanistan and root out al-Qaeda.” The war in Iraq, Obama continued, “is an enormous distraction from the battle that does have to be waged in Afghanistan.”
In a foreign-policy address, then-Senator Obama noted that terrorists moved freely between Afghanistan and Pakistan. “There are tribes there that see borders as nothing more than lines on a map, and governments as forces that come and go. There are blood ties deeper than alliances of convenience, and pockets of extremism that follow religion to violence. It’s a tough place. But that is no excuse. . . . We cannot fail to act because action is hard.”
During a visit to Afghanistan in 2008, Senator Obama described the situation as “precarious and urgent” and emphasized that “this has to be our central focus, the central front, on our battle against terrorism.”
Two months after taking office, the president reiterated his commitment to the war: “So I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future. That’s the goal that must be achieved. That is a cause that could not be more just. And to the terrorists who oppose us, my message is the same: We will defeat you.”
The message that emerges from Woodward’s book is otherwise. The specter of Vietnam haunted meetings of Obama’s top advisers, Woodward writes. Vice President Biden, who pleaded for a reduced commitment to Afghanistan, warned the president that a larger deployment of troops would mean “we’re locked into Vietnam.”
President Obama steered a middle path between what his military advisers suggested and what the doves in the White House preferred. He agreed to deploy 30,000 extra soldiers, but with strict limits on what they could do in country and with the (self-sabotaging) announcement that they would begin to withdraw in July 2011. He drew up a document, Woodward reports, that “took the unusual step of stating, along with the strategy’s objectives, what the military was not supposed to do.”
In 1967 and 1968, another Democratic president sat in the Oval Office and put pins on a map — choosing bombing targets in Vietnam. He didn’t really believe the war was winnable, but he couldn’t see any way out.
Barack Obama has lately been compared with Jimmy Carter. But by declining to act decisively on Afghanistan — one way or the other — he is blundering into Johnson territory.