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Obama’s Exit-Strategy Justifications

It occurs to me that I (and most other commentators) might be a trifle unfair to the president in our interpretation of the deadline he set to begin leaving Afghanistan: July 2011. I write in the Los Angeles Times today that “if Afghanistan is indeed a ‘vital national interest,’ as Obama said, why announce an exit strategy? Perhaps he is trying to head off criticism from his liberal supporters.”

Was I too hasty in dismissing the actual justifications for the deadline he offered in the speech? Let’s examine them. In Obama’s speech, he attacked those who might call for an “open-ended escalation of our war effort” by arguing:

I reject this course because it sets goals that are beyond what we can achieve at a reasonable cost, and what we need to achieve to secure our interests. Furthermore, the absence of a timeframe for transition would deny us any sense of urgency in working with the Afghan government. It must be clear that Afghans will have to take responsibility for their security, and that America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan.

The first concern, about the “reasonable cost,” is hard to square with the president’s willingness to fling countless billions of dollars at our health-care system and various pork-barrel projects in public works. Obama is no fiscal conservative, except when spending is proposed for projects about which he is unenthusiastic.

What about his second argument — that a time frame will instill a greater “sense of urgency” into the Afghan government to get its act together? This echoes a favorite talking point offered by Obama and other opponents of the surge in Iraq. They argued at the time that we needed to begin withdrawing American troops to force Iraqi politicians to make compromises. There is no evidence that troop withdrawals would have had this effect; more likely, they would have simply encouraged Iraqis to take more extreme positions to get ready for a looming civil war — something that was already beginning to happen in 2006 before the surge. Since the success of the surge, on the other hand, Iraqi politicos have started to get their act together. Even when they are stymied over a tough issue, such as the present election law, they are settling their differences through backroom horse trading, not guns and bombs.

The experience of Iraq is hardly dispositive, but it does suggest that American time lines are counterproductive. Incentives for compromise and reform are created by American commitments to stay. Otherwise, moderates lose ground, and radicals come to the fore.

In the case of Afghanistan, if Hamid Karzai is to move against corrupt officials implicated in the drug trade (including his own brother), he needs assurances that we will stick around and protect him. If he thinks we’re heading out the door, he will have no choice but to make deals with warlords — precisely the opposite of what Obama would like to see.

Thus neither rationale for the time line makes much sense. At least the second one sounds more sincere, if misguided. I still think the desire to placate his liberal base is a big part of the explanation, but so is another factor: the desire to placate a part of the president’s own mind. Does anyone doubt that if Obama were still in the Senate and President McCain were announcing a troop surge in Afghanistan, he would be in violent opposition? I don’t. It is, therefore, all the more laudable that he has gone against his natural instincts by ordering the surge. But there is obviously still a part of him that is uncomfortable with the policy. Hence the deadline.


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