David Brooks describes the “determination vacuum” at the heart of the Afghanistan war strategy. No one who has watched the White House seminars, the massaging of troop levels, the whining about a lack of planning from the Bush administration, the effort to redefine the threat and the mission (from defeating the Taliban to picking off al-Qaeda), the whispered intimations that a victory isn’t possible, the freezing out of military leaders from the decision-making process, and the effort to mix and match incompatible approaches could conclude that the president is bound and determined to win at all costs. That’s what this is all about, after all.
As Brooks observes:
The experts I spoke with describe a vacuum at the heart of the war effort — a determination vacuum. And if these experts do not know the state of President Obama’s resolve, neither do the Afghan villagers. They are now hedging their bets, refusing to inform on Taliban force movements because they are aware that these Taliban fighters would be their masters if the U.S. withdraws. Nor does President Hamid Karzai know. He’s cutting deals with the Afghan warlords he would need if NATO leaves his country.
Nor do the Pakistanis or the Iranians or the Russians know. They are maintaining ties with the Taliban elements that would represent their interests in the event of a U.S. withdrawal.
The determination vacuum affects the debate in this country, too. Every argument about troop levels is really a proxy argument for whether the U.S. should stay or go. The administration is so divided because the fundamental issue of commitment has not been settled.
We don’t know why the president dithers. Maybe he really wants every dime for his health-care plan. Perhaps he simply can’t stomach the notion of annoying Nancy Pelosi. He might lack the ability to corral diverse voices and get everyone in his administration and party onboard with a controversial decision. Or he may simply be so stubborn that he can’t accept that Gen. Stanley McChrystal was right and had already given the country the right answer before Obama adopted the counterinsurgency plan as his own. It is unknowable and ultimately unimportant why the president is projecting weakness.
What is critical is whether we lack a commander in chief who inspires confidence and seems prepared to lead the country to victory. If Obama isn’t convincing Brooks, he’s not going to convince the country, our allies, the military, and especially our enemies. Running a seminar is not leading the nation in war, and the endless seminar has now made it infinitely more difficult to succeed at the latter. The president is seemingly unaware that others are watching his equivocation and making their own calculations, ones that will further complicate our war strategy, if we ever get one.