While conservative critics of President Obama are right to point out the flaws in his Afghanistan plan, the fact that he has committed himself to fighting there renders our misgivings secondary considerations. The purpose of a loyal opposition is not merely to oppose the faction in power but also to support it when it does the right thing. So long as Barack Obama is prepared to fight Islamists in Afghanistan — or anywhere else — he deserves the backing of conservatives on this point. That is especially true when so much of the president’s own party is either opposed or lukewarm about America’s duty to prevent the Taliban from returning to power.
Though we may be rightly worried about the impact of Obama’s statement that U.S. troops will begin to leave Afghanistan in 18 months, the proper response to this blunder is to begin to advocate strongly that Obama use his discretion as commander in chief to keep our forces in the field as long as the enemy poses a threat to the Afghan government. The push to give him the political cover to back off his imprudent promise of withdrawal cannot start too soon. His speech seemed at times more concerned with mollifying his critics on the Left than sounding a clarion call to battle against evil. Indeed, the refusal to use the word victory as a goal even once was troubling. But now that Obama “owns” this war, the facts on the ground may well leave him no choice but to ignore his deadline rather than face the humiliation of a collapse. History teaches us that wars often render the prior political calculations of the combatants irrelevant. Though some — not without reason — assume the worst about Obama’s intentions, we must not succumb to the temptation to merely play politics on this point. Rather, it is proper that the tone of conservative advocacy on Afghanistan not be one of blind opposition but rather one that seeks to bolster the president’s resolve while opposing those who seek to undermine it.
The stakes here are considerable, as the notion of a pre-announced exit date is apparently spreading no small amount of panic in Afghanistan and Pakistan. As the New York Times reports today, American diplomats are working overtime trying to convince government officials in the two countries that Obama’s plan is not to “cut and run.” The fear is real that those who commit themselves to support American and NATO efforts will eventually be left to the mercy of the Islamists. We may well point to these predictable results of Obama’s equivocation as evidence of the administration’s amateurish approach to policy as well as the president’s lack of comfort in articulating a martial cause. Revulsion against Obama’s economic policies, his health-care boondoggle, and a generally feckless foreign policy has breathed new life into a conservative movement that had lost its way during the last years of the Bush presidency. Conservatives must continue to vigorously fight Obama on all those points. But on Afghanistan, the instinct to oppose Obama must give way to the superior obligation to support a just war in which America must prevail.