Commentary Magazine


Topic: Afghan government

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.

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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The Task Made Harder

Eliot Cohen makes a forceful case that the president made essentially the right call on Afghanistan. (Although he notes that “the White House’s decision to send only 30,000 troops, while calling upon our allies for thousands more—perhaps as many as 10,000—makes little sense. The Europeans have repeatedly revealed their aversion to combat.”)

Cohen observes, however, that both the protracted decision-making process (including the constant leaking, which revealed schisms and doubts about the mission within the administration) and the “the incessant, unsourced, but high-level attacks from the administration on President Hamid Karzai” have made the task ahead more difficult. That task, of course, is to bolster the Afghan government and convince our enemies of our determination to win. As for the speech, Cohen writes:

The jargon of transition and exit ramps, and an 18-month target to begin withdrawal unfortunately tells our enemies to persevere through a couple of bad fighting seasons, because the Americans, or at least their leaders, do not have the determination to succeed. The president spoke of reconciling and integrating the Taliban. The Taliban are tough, and this sends the message that they only need hang on to win. Only when they conclude that the alternative is death, will they decide to abandon a war they otherwise seem likely to win.

The speech rattled not only conservatives in the U.S. but also our allies, as the New York Times reports:

President Obama’s timetable for American forces in Afghanistan rattled nerves in that country and Pakistan on Wednesday, prompting diplomats to scramble to reassure the two countries at the center of the president’s war strategy that the United States would not cut and run.

In Afghanistan, Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta, the only minister who commented on the speech, said the announcement that American troops could begin leaving in 18 months served as a kind of shock therapy, but caused anxiety. “Can we do it?” he asked. “That is the main question. This is not done in a moment. It is a process.”

In Pakistan, President Obama’s declaration fed longstanding fears that America would abruptly withdraw, leaving Pakistan to fend for itself.

In trying to have it all ways so as to hold on to those allies who refuse to embrace the substance of the policy he has embarked upon, the president did himself no good. (Cohen notes: “As a wartime leader he will tend many wounds, but the most grievous thus far are those he has inflicted on himself.”) Obama has embraced a policy that requires resolve and clarity, not equivocation and confusion. His West Point appearance quickly devolved into a mad scramble to repair the damage done by an ill-conceived speech. It needn’t be fatal, but it must not be repeated.

Eliot Cohen makes a forceful case that the president made essentially the right call on Afghanistan. (Although he notes that “the White House’s decision to send only 30,000 troops, while calling upon our allies for thousands more—perhaps as many as 10,000—makes little sense. The Europeans have repeatedly revealed their aversion to combat.”)

Cohen observes, however, that both the protracted decision-making process (including the constant leaking, which revealed schisms and doubts about the mission within the administration) and the “the incessant, unsourced, but high-level attacks from the administration on President Hamid Karzai” have made the task ahead more difficult. That task, of course, is to bolster the Afghan government and convince our enemies of our determination to win. As for the speech, Cohen writes:

The jargon of transition and exit ramps, and an 18-month target to begin withdrawal unfortunately tells our enemies to persevere through a couple of bad fighting seasons, because the Americans, or at least their leaders, do not have the determination to succeed. The president spoke of reconciling and integrating the Taliban. The Taliban are tough, and this sends the message that they only need hang on to win. Only when they conclude that the alternative is death, will they decide to abandon a war they otherwise seem likely to win.

The speech rattled not only conservatives in the U.S. but also our allies, as the New York Times reports:

President Obama’s timetable for American forces in Afghanistan rattled nerves in that country and Pakistan on Wednesday, prompting diplomats to scramble to reassure the two countries at the center of the president’s war strategy that the United States would not cut and run.

In Afghanistan, Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta, the only minister who commented on the speech, said the announcement that American troops could begin leaving in 18 months served as a kind of shock therapy, but caused anxiety. “Can we do it?” he asked. “That is the main question. This is not done in a moment. It is a process.”

In Pakistan, President Obama’s declaration fed longstanding fears that America would abruptly withdraw, leaving Pakistan to fend for itself.

In trying to have it all ways so as to hold on to those allies who refuse to embrace the substance of the policy he has embarked upon, the president did himself no good. (Cohen notes: “As a wartime leader he will tend many wounds, but the most grievous thus far are those he has inflicted on himself.”) Obama has embraced a policy that requires resolve and clarity, not equivocation and confusion. His West Point appearance quickly devolved into a mad scramble to repair the damage done by an ill-conceived speech. It needn’t be fatal, but it must not be repeated.

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Muddled Future, Fractured History

There is, it seems, some agreement that the speech last night was a bit of a mess. Bob Schieffer, noting that exit ramps have been constructed before the deployment, observed:  “I just don’t understand the logic of how that works.” John Dickerson at Slate, not exactly the heart of neo-conservatism, writes that he did order a troop increase:

The rest, though, is a bit blurry. According to his speech, Obama is escalating while retreating, adding more troops while also setting a date for their departure. Obama said he was putting pressure on the Afghan government, but he didn’t suggest how. Some of the blurring was by design. He smudged the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, explaining that while he was sending troops to Afghanistan, the struggle was now more regional than it was when the war started eight years ago.

And David Ignatius was similarly skeptical of the obsession with an exit plan, wondering why the president doesn’t really get the problem with telling the enemy that we have limited patience to fight. He relates his conversation with the president:

He has defined success downward, by focusing on the ability to transfer control to the Afghans. He shows little interest in the big ideas of counterinsurgency and insists he will avoid “a nation-building commitment in Afghanistan.” That will make it easier to declare a “good enough” outcome in July 2011, if not victory.

When I asked Obama if the Taliban wouldn’t simply wait us out, he was dismissive: “This is an argument that I don’t give a lot of credence to, because if you follow the logic of this argument, then you would never leave. Right? Essentially you’d be signing on to have Afghanistan as a protectorate of the United States indefinitely.”

Well, no, actually. You convince the enemy you’ll stay until you win. You win, and then you leave. It really isn’t that hard. As Ignatius notes of the president’s apparent cluelessness: “Obama thinks that setting deadlines will force the Afghans to get their act together at last. That strikes me as the most dubious premise of his strategy. He is telling his adversary that he will start leaving on a certain date, and telling his ally to be ready to take over then, or else.”

But if Obama’s war vision was confused, the account of his own presidency was positively unrecognizable. It seemed that he was speaking of some other presidency, or one he hoped to have had, when he, for example, declared: “We have forged a new beginning between America and the Muslim World — one that recognizes our mutual interest in breaking a cycle of conflict, and that promises a future in which those who kill innocents are isolated by those who stand up for peace and prosperity and human dignity.” What is he talking about? The Middle East “peace process” is in a shambles, and he has left a trail of disappointed and aggrieved Muslims — from the Palestinian Authority, which thought it was getting the impossible, to the democracy advocates, who thought they had a friend in the White House. What’s new, exactly? Read More

There is, it seems, some agreement that the speech last night was a bit of a mess. Bob Schieffer, noting that exit ramps have been constructed before the deployment, observed:  “I just don’t understand the logic of how that works.” John Dickerson at Slate, not exactly the heart of neo-conservatism, writes that he did order a troop increase:

The rest, though, is a bit blurry. According to his speech, Obama is escalating while retreating, adding more troops while also setting a date for their departure. Obama said he was putting pressure on the Afghan government, but he didn’t suggest how. Some of the blurring was by design. He smudged the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, explaining that while he was sending troops to Afghanistan, the struggle was now more regional than it was when the war started eight years ago.

And David Ignatius was similarly skeptical of the obsession with an exit plan, wondering why the president doesn’t really get the problem with telling the enemy that we have limited patience to fight. He relates his conversation with the president:

He has defined success downward, by focusing on the ability to transfer control to the Afghans. He shows little interest in the big ideas of counterinsurgency and insists he will avoid “a nation-building commitment in Afghanistan.” That will make it easier to declare a “good enough” outcome in July 2011, if not victory.

When I asked Obama if the Taliban wouldn’t simply wait us out, he was dismissive: “This is an argument that I don’t give a lot of credence to, because if you follow the logic of this argument, then you would never leave. Right? Essentially you’d be signing on to have Afghanistan as a protectorate of the United States indefinitely.”

Well, no, actually. You convince the enemy you’ll stay until you win. You win, and then you leave. It really isn’t that hard. As Ignatius notes of the president’s apparent cluelessness: “Obama thinks that setting deadlines will force the Afghans to get their act together at last. That strikes me as the most dubious premise of his strategy. He is telling his adversary that he will start leaving on a certain date, and telling his ally to be ready to take over then, or else.”

But if Obama’s war vision was confused, the account of his own presidency was positively unrecognizable. It seemed that he was speaking of some other presidency, or one he hoped to have had, when he, for example, declared: “We have forged a new beginning between America and the Muslim World — one that recognizes our mutual interest in breaking a cycle of conflict, and that promises a future in which those who kill innocents are isolated by those who stand up for peace and prosperity and human dignity.” What is he talking about? The Middle East “peace process” is in a shambles, and he has left a trail of disappointed and aggrieved Muslims — from the Palestinian Authority, which thought it was getting the impossible, to the democracy advocates, who thought they had a friend in the White House. What’s new, exactly?

But the next line was the jaw dropper: “We must make it clear to every man, woman and child around the world who lives under the dark cloud of tyranny that America will speak out on behalf of their human rights, and tend to the light of freedom, and justice, and opportunity, and respect for the dignity of all peoples.” Well we “must,” but he’s done nothing of the sort, repeatedly downgrading, diminishing, and discarding human rights and democracy promotion. He hasn’t spoken out to or on behalf of the Chinese democracy advocates. When he had the chance, he did nothing to “tend the light of freedom and justice” in Iran. When he could have showed the Dalai Lama that he valued “respect for the dignity of all peoples,” he decided it was more important to show the Chinese Communists his inner toadiness. Really, embellishment in a speech is to be expected, but this was one big lie.

Obama never did say “victory,” and that is telling. It’s not his thing. As a colleague points out, what Obama believes in is leaving. You see, “America will have to show our strength in the way that we end wars and prevent conflict.” I’m sure the Taliban are delighted to hear that, as are our foes around the world, who will be only too happy to have Obama “show strength” by bugging out of hard conflicts. It’s an inanity, the sort of thing a college grad student would say. We show strength in victory. We show strength by standing up to thugs. We show strength by building our military and not penny-pinching on Defense Department budgets. But don’t expect to hear that from this president.

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Three-Quarters of the Way There

President Obama is giving General McChrystal about three-quarters of what he wants — 30,000 of 40,000 troops. Thus it is appropriate that his speech was about three-quarters good.

The good parts were his signals of resolve and determination. He said, for example, that we have a “vital national interest” in Afghanistan and that we are there “to prevent a cancer from once again spreading through that country.” In the same vein, I loved his conclusion:

And the message that we send in the midst of these storms must be clear: that our cause is just, our resolve unwavering. We will go forward with the confidence that right makes might, and with the commitment to forge an America that is safer, a world that is more secure, and a future that represents not the deepest of fears but the highest of hopes.

One can easily imagine those words being spoken by Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush.

The problem is that there is plenty of reason to doubt Obama’s resolve in Afghanistan. On the plus side, he committed to sending more troops than some White House aides wanted, and he committed to sending them at once, refusing to draw out the process by announcing “off ramps” in the deployment plan or “benchmarks” that the Afghan government must meet before we send more forces.

But then he undercut some of the urgency he conveyed by pledging “to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011.” If this is such a vital national interest — and it is — why is our commitment so limited? How can he be so confident that the extra 30,000 troops — who will be lucky to arrive in their entirety by next summer — can accomplish their ambitious mission in just a year?

Obama tried to triangulate by adding: “Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground.” He also stressed that he would only begin a drawdown in July 2011, not end it; the pace and length of the exit remain to be determined. Thus he suggested that he might still walk away from the redeployment deadline, just as he walked away from the deadline to close Guantanamo. But the message that’s going out to the Taliban right now is that they just have to wait 18 months and the infidels will be out the door. That may not be accurate, but that’s what our enemies will hear.

The deadline is designed to placate the liberal base of the Democratic party. I predict that won’t work — the left-wing will be incensed by the extra troop deployment, regardless of the time line. So his gambit fails politically as well as strategically. That’s too bad, because otherwise his policy on Afghanistan is fairly sound.

President Obama is giving General McChrystal about three-quarters of what he wants — 30,000 of 40,000 troops. Thus it is appropriate that his speech was about three-quarters good.

The good parts were his signals of resolve and determination. He said, for example, that we have a “vital national interest” in Afghanistan and that we are there “to prevent a cancer from once again spreading through that country.” In the same vein, I loved his conclusion:

And the message that we send in the midst of these storms must be clear: that our cause is just, our resolve unwavering. We will go forward with the confidence that right makes might, and with the commitment to forge an America that is safer, a world that is more secure, and a future that represents not the deepest of fears but the highest of hopes.

One can easily imagine those words being spoken by Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush.

The problem is that there is plenty of reason to doubt Obama’s resolve in Afghanistan. On the plus side, he committed to sending more troops than some White House aides wanted, and he committed to sending them at once, refusing to draw out the process by announcing “off ramps” in the deployment plan or “benchmarks” that the Afghan government must meet before we send more forces.

But then he undercut some of the urgency he conveyed by pledging “to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011.” If this is such a vital national interest — and it is — why is our commitment so limited? How can he be so confident that the extra 30,000 troops — who will be lucky to arrive in their entirety by next summer — can accomplish their ambitious mission in just a year?

Obama tried to triangulate by adding: “Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground.” He also stressed that he would only begin a drawdown in July 2011, not end it; the pace and length of the exit remain to be determined. Thus he suggested that he might still walk away from the redeployment deadline, just as he walked away from the deadline to close Guantanamo. But the message that’s going out to the Taliban right now is that they just have to wait 18 months and the infidels will be out the door. That may not be accurate, but that’s what our enemies will hear.

The deadline is designed to placate the liberal base of the Democratic party. I predict that won’t work — the left-wing will be incensed by the extra troop deployment, regardless of the time line. So his gambit fails politically as well as strategically. That’s too bad, because otherwise his policy on Afghanistan is fairly sound.

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LIVE BLOG: The Nots

He gets this right, and while self-evident to many conservatives, he takes the time to explain, presumably for the benefit of his liberal friends, that this isn’t Vietnam. We were attacked, after all, by al-Qaeda. Well, yes, and we forget that others forget. He also says we can’t maintain the status quo — that’s what we’ve been doing. And then he takes a swipe at the “nation-building” and “endless war” crowd (they are out there, I suppose). And it is here where he sounds the least convincing and the most defensive:

Finally, there are those who oppose identifying a time frame for our transition to Afghan responsibility. Indeed, some call for a more dramatic and open-ended escalation of our war effort – one that would commit us to a nation building project of up to a decade.

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.

Yet, he really hasn’t set a time for ending the war. He’s not saying we will bug out at a date certain. So he dislikes the sound of open-endedness, it seems. And again one wonders why he feels compelled to explain that we won’t be in this for as long as is needed to win. It must be because he has other things to do. And indeed he does, with this stark admission:

Our prosperity provides a foundation for our power. It pays for our military. It underwrites our diplomacy. It taps the potential of our people, and allows investment in new industry. And it will allow us to compete in this century as successfully as we did in the last. That is why our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended – because the nation that I am most interested in building is our own.

Well, at least he’s honest on that score.

He gets this right, and while self-evident to many conservatives, he takes the time to explain, presumably for the benefit of his liberal friends, that this isn’t Vietnam. We were attacked, after all, by al-Qaeda. Well, yes, and we forget that others forget. He also says we can’t maintain the status quo — that’s what we’ve been doing. And then he takes a swipe at the “nation-building” and “endless war” crowd (they are out there, I suppose). And it is here where he sounds the least convincing and the most defensive:

Finally, there are those who oppose identifying a time frame for our transition to Afghan responsibility. Indeed, some call for a more dramatic and open-ended escalation of our war effort – one that would commit us to a nation building project of up to a decade.

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.

Yet, he really hasn’t set a time for ending the war. He’s not saying we will bug out at a date certain. So he dislikes the sound of open-endedness, it seems. And again one wonders why he feels compelled to explain that we won’t be in this for as long as is needed to win. It must be because he has other things to do. And indeed he does, with this stark admission:

Our prosperity provides a foundation for our power. It pays for our military. It underwrites our diplomacy. It taps the potential of our people, and allows investment in new industry. And it will allow us to compete in this century as successfully as we did in the last. That is why our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended – because the nation that I am most interested in building is our own.

Well, at least he’s honest on that score.

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Re: Obama Finally Resolute on Afghanistan?

From the briefing held in advance of the speech, Max, there seems to be much to be pleased about. The briefer made clear that the goal is to “disrupt, dismantle, and eventually defeat al Qaeda and to prevent their return to either Afghanistan or Pakistan,” and this entails stabilizing Pakistan and preventing the Taliban’s overthrow of the Afghan government. Obama will announce a “surge” (yes, they call it that) of 30,000 troops. The briefer did declare that this would be for a “defined period of time.” But conservatives who are wary of endpoints and withdrawal dates may take some comfort in this:

What the President will talk about tonight is a date by which he has given the mission that we will begin to transfer our lead responsibility — that is, the U.S. and NATO lead responsibilities from that operation — to Afghan counterparts. He will not, however, tonight specify the end of that transition process, nor will he specify the pace at which it will proceed. Those variables — pace and end — will be dictated by conditions on the ground.

Again, in the Q & A, the briefer added:

This is the beginning of a process which is not yet defined in terms of the length of the process or the end point. And that’s because the pace of transition from our lead to the Afghan lead, and how long it will take, will be dominated by conditions on the ground, which, because they’re at least 18 months from now, are not possible to foresee with accuracy.

This sounds sober and realistic, like something that could have come out of the mouth of an official in the George W. Bush administration. The process getting here was arduous and frankly damaging to the president’s own standing. If he delivers a compelling speech, he can begin to undo some of that self-inflicted harm.

From the briefing held in advance of the speech, Max, there seems to be much to be pleased about. The briefer made clear that the goal is to “disrupt, dismantle, and eventually defeat al Qaeda and to prevent their return to either Afghanistan or Pakistan,” and this entails stabilizing Pakistan and preventing the Taliban’s overthrow of the Afghan government. Obama will announce a “surge” (yes, they call it that) of 30,000 troops. The briefer did declare that this would be for a “defined period of time.” But conservatives who are wary of endpoints and withdrawal dates may take some comfort in this:

What the President will talk about tonight is a date by which he has given the mission that we will begin to transfer our lead responsibility — that is, the U.S. and NATO lead responsibilities from that operation — to Afghan counterparts. He will not, however, tonight specify the end of that transition process, nor will he specify the pace at which it will proceed. Those variables — pace and end — will be dictated by conditions on the ground.

Again, in the Q & A, the briefer added:

This is the beginning of a process which is not yet defined in terms of the length of the process or the end point. And that’s because the pace of transition from our lead to the Afghan lead, and how long it will take, will be dominated by conditions on the ground, which, because they’re at least 18 months from now, are not possible to foresee with accuracy.

This sounds sober and realistic, like something that could have come out of the mouth of an official in the George W. Bush administration. The process getting here was arduous and frankly damaging to the president’s own standing. If he delivers a compelling speech, he can begin to undo some of that self-inflicted harm.

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An Afghan Awakening?

Last week a former UN envoy to Afghanistan tried to tell me that average Pashtuns and other Afghans don’t really mind the Taliban and would therefore never side with the U.S. against them. One should show little tolerance for such arguments. They are contradicted by all recent polls of Afghan opinion, and depend on a chilling ignorance of things like this:

Taliban militants fighting the Afghan government in the latest wave of violence have beheaded two civilians in the western Farah province, a local newspaper reported Tuesday.

“The armed Taliban fighters kidnapped five persons in Khak-e-Safid district of Farah district Monday and beheaded two and released the remaining three after a few hours,” Arman-e-Millie said, Xinhua reported.

Evidence of blissful coexistence, no doubt. Here’s more, courtesy of Dexter Filkins in today’s New York Times: “American and Afghan officials have begun helping a number of anti-Taliban militias that have independently taken up arms against insurgents in several parts of Afghanistan, prompting hopes of a large-scale tribal rebellion against the Taliban. . . The plan echoes a similar movement that unfolded in Iraq, beginning in late 2006, in which Sunni tribes turned against Islamist extremists.”

Critics often say there is no clearly defined goal in Afghanistan. I submit that if anti-Taliban sentiment there were parlayed into something that resembles the Sunni Awakening in Iraq, it would mark the achievement of a goal almost too welcome to hope for: Afghanistan’s organic inoculation against the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Here’s the difference between Iraq and Afghanistan. In Iraq, the Sunnis realized that coalition forces were a) the strong horse, and b) sticking around. In Afghanistan, brave civilians taking up arms against the Taliban have no such reassurances. In fact, one hopes they didn’t hear President Obama say he’s “not interested in . . . sending a message that America—is here [in Afghanistan] for— for the duration.” Let’s also hope they didn’t hear Hillary Clinton say that “we have no long-term stake” in Afghanistan. As Gen. Stanley McChrystal put it, “A perception that our resolve is uncertain makes Afghans reluctant to align with us against the insurgents.” If in reality our resolve proves to be uncertain then we will have squandered an invaluable gift.

In any case, let’s stop this talk of tribal peoples who love their tormentors.

Last week a former UN envoy to Afghanistan tried to tell me that average Pashtuns and other Afghans don’t really mind the Taliban and would therefore never side with the U.S. against them. One should show little tolerance for such arguments. They are contradicted by all recent polls of Afghan opinion, and depend on a chilling ignorance of things like this:

Taliban militants fighting the Afghan government in the latest wave of violence have beheaded two civilians in the western Farah province, a local newspaper reported Tuesday.

“The armed Taliban fighters kidnapped five persons in Khak-e-Safid district of Farah district Monday and beheaded two and released the remaining three after a few hours,” Arman-e-Millie said, Xinhua reported.

Evidence of blissful coexistence, no doubt. Here’s more, courtesy of Dexter Filkins in today’s New York Times: “American and Afghan officials have begun helping a number of anti-Taliban militias that have independently taken up arms against insurgents in several parts of Afghanistan, prompting hopes of a large-scale tribal rebellion against the Taliban. . . The plan echoes a similar movement that unfolded in Iraq, beginning in late 2006, in which Sunni tribes turned against Islamist extremists.”

Critics often say there is no clearly defined goal in Afghanistan. I submit that if anti-Taliban sentiment there were parlayed into something that resembles the Sunni Awakening in Iraq, it would mark the achievement of a goal almost too welcome to hope for: Afghanistan’s organic inoculation against the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Here’s the difference between Iraq and Afghanistan. In Iraq, the Sunnis realized that coalition forces were a) the strong horse, and b) sticking around. In Afghanistan, brave civilians taking up arms against the Taliban have no such reassurances. In fact, one hopes they didn’t hear President Obama say he’s “not interested in . . . sending a message that America—is here [in Afghanistan] for— for the duration.” Let’s also hope they didn’t hear Hillary Clinton say that “we have no long-term stake” in Afghanistan. As Gen. Stanley McChrystal put it, “A perception that our resolve is uncertain makes Afghans reluctant to align with us against the insurgents.” If in reality our resolve proves to be uncertain then we will have squandered an invaluable gift.

In any case, let’s stop this talk of tribal peoples who love their tormentors.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

Obama drops below 50% approval in Gallup.

The cap-and-trade bill is so bad even John McCain opposes it. “McCain refers to the bill as ‘cap and tax,’ calls the climate legislation that passed the House in June ‘a 1,400-page monstrosity’ and dismisses a cap-and-trade proposal included in the White House budget as ‘a government slush fund.’”

A Democrat breaks with the White House on trying KSM in civilian court: “The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee expressed opposition today to Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to give civilian trials to the 9/11 plotters. Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) penned a letter to Holder and Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggesting military trials would be a more appropriate venue for the accused terrorists. ”

Another slighted democratic ally: “Days before India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is to be welcomed in the White House for his first state visit with President Obama, two perceived missteps by the Obama administration have concerned Indian officials that New Delhi suddenly has been relegated to the second tier of U.S.-Asian relations.” When is it that we start “restoring” our standing in the world?

Sen. Jon Kyl wants answers from the Justice Department regarding the NIAC.

Trouble in the “permanent majority“: “The Democratic Party’s broad ruling coalition is starting to fracture as lawmakers come under increasing pressure from the left to respond to voter anger over joblessness and Wall Street bailouts. Tensions boiled over this week, with an angry party caucus meeting Monday in the House, and black lawmakers Thursday threatening to block legislation in protest of President Barack Obama’s economic policies.  . . The squabbling is turning up pressure on the White House and Democratic leaders in Congress to respond, a challenge when their focus is on passing a health-care overhaul.” What a difference a year of one-party Democratic liberal rule makes.

Democrats insist that 2010 won’t be another 1994. However, “danger could lurk if turnout is low, factors that hurt Dem GOV candidates in NJ and VA this year.” In other words, if things keep going the way they have been, a lot of Democrats will be in trouble.

She must not have gotten the new script. This week we are being supportive of the Afghan government: “Calling Afghan President Hamid Karzai an ‘unworthy partner,’ a key Democratic leader warned Friday that Congress cannot fund an expanded military mission without a reliable ally in Kabul. Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, said moreover she did not think there was political support for sending more US troops to Afghanistan, as President Barack Obama is contemplating.”

The Obama team may not be able to give Big Labor card check but they haven’t run out of goodies: “The National Mediation Board, which oversees labor relations in the air and rail industry, this month moved to overturn 75 years of labor policy. The board plans to stack the deck for organized labor in union elections. Under a proposed rule, unions would no longer have to get the approval of a majority of airline workers to achieve certification. Not even close. Instead, a union could win just by getting a majority of the employees who vote. Thus, if only 1,000 of 10,000 flight attendants vote in a union election, and 501 vote for certification, the other 9,499 become unionized.”

Obama drops below 50% approval in Gallup.

The cap-and-trade bill is so bad even John McCain opposes it. “McCain refers to the bill as ‘cap and tax,’ calls the climate legislation that passed the House in June ‘a 1,400-page monstrosity’ and dismisses a cap-and-trade proposal included in the White House budget as ‘a government slush fund.’”

A Democrat breaks with the White House on trying KSM in civilian court: “The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee expressed opposition today to Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to give civilian trials to the 9/11 plotters. Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) penned a letter to Holder and Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggesting military trials would be a more appropriate venue for the accused terrorists. ”

Another slighted democratic ally: “Days before India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is to be welcomed in the White House for his first state visit with President Obama, two perceived missteps by the Obama administration have concerned Indian officials that New Delhi suddenly has been relegated to the second tier of U.S.-Asian relations.” When is it that we start “restoring” our standing in the world?

Sen. Jon Kyl wants answers from the Justice Department regarding the NIAC.

Trouble in the “permanent majority“: “The Democratic Party’s broad ruling coalition is starting to fracture as lawmakers come under increasing pressure from the left to respond to voter anger over joblessness and Wall Street bailouts. Tensions boiled over this week, with an angry party caucus meeting Monday in the House, and black lawmakers Thursday threatening to block legislation in protest of President Barack Obama’s economic policies.  . . The squabbling is turning up pressure on the White House and Democratic leaders in Congress to respond, a challenge when their focus is on passing a health-care overhaul.” What a difference a year of one-party Democratic liberal rule makes.

Democrats insist that 2010 won’t be another 1994. However, “danger could lurk if turnout is low, factors that hurt Dem GOV candidates in NJ and VA this year.” In other words, if things keep going the way they have been, a lot of Democrats will be in trouble.

She must not have gotten the new script. This week we are being supportive of the Afghan government: “Calling Afghan President Hamid Karzai an ‘unworthy partner,’ a key Democratic leader warned Friday that Congress cannot fund an expanded military mission without a reliable ally in Kabul. Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, said moreover she did not think there was political support for sending more US troops to Afghanistan, as President Barack Obama is contemplating.”

The Obama team may not be able to give Big Labor card check but they haven’t run out of goodies: “The National Mediation Board, which oversees labor relations in the air and rail industry, this month moved to overturn 75 years of labor policy. The board plans to stack the deck for organized labor in union elections. Under a proposed rule, unions would no longer have to get the approval of a majority of airline workers to achieve certification. Not even close. Instead, a union could win just by getting a majority of the employees who vote. Thus, if only 1,000 of 10,000 flight attendants vote in a union election, and 501 vote for certification, the other 9,499 become unionized.”

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An About-Face, Finally

After publicly bashing the Afghan government for months, airing their doubts as to whether we have a reliable “partner,” and stalling a decision about the troops while the election was redone (but not really, as the challenger dropped out), the Obami have decided to be nice, or nicer, at any rate, to the government we are trying to stabilize. The Washington Post reports:

As President Obama nears a decision on how many more troops he will dispatch to Afghanistan, his top diplomats and generals are abandoning for now their get-tough tactics with Karzai and attempting to forge a far warmer relationship. They recognize that their initial strategy may have done more harm than good, fueling stress and anger in a beleaguered, conspiracy-minded leader whom the U.S. government needs as a partner.

“It’s not sustainable to have a ‘War of the Roses’ relationship here, where . . . we basically throw things at each other,” said another senior administration official . . .

The tension in the relationship stems from the cumulative impact of several White House decisions that were intended to improve the quality of the Afghan government. When Obama became president, he discontinued his predecessor’s practice of holding bimonthly video conferences with Karzai. Obama granted wide latitude to the hard-charging Holbrooke to pressure Karzai to tackle the corruption and mismanagement that have fueled the Taliban’s rise. The administration also indicated that it wanted many candidates to challenge Karzai in the August presidential election.

It turns out that the bullying routine was about as successful in Afghanistan as it has been in the Middle East. But don’t expect much self-reflection. Hillary Clinton is now tasked with the charm offensive. We learn: “As Mr. Karzai begins his new term, Mrs. Clinton has worked to avoid a hectoring tone in her public comments about him. American officials had done too much of that in the past, she said.” The past, meaning the past few months, I suppose.

Once again it seems as though we are having to relearn the lessons of Iraq. There, too, Democrats sneered at the government as hopeless and at its prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, as ineffectual and inept. With the success of the surge and the breathing room to establish a functioning civil government, that perception has changed. And likewise, in Afghanistan, the Obami may be learning belatedly (because they have chosen not to extract any meaningful lessons from the Iraq war, which they were ready to lose) that we actually need to bolster the native government if we hope to defeat our mutual enemy. You’d think smart diplomats would have figured this out much sooner.

After publicly bashing the Afghan government for months, airing their doubts as to whether we have a reliable “partner,” and stalling a decision about the troops while the election was redone (but not really, as the challenger dropped out), the Obami have decided to be nice, or nicer, at any rate, to the government we are trying to stabilize. The Washington Post reports:

As President Obama nears a decision on how many more troops he will dispatch to Afghanistan, his top diplomats and generals are abandoning for now their get-tough tactics with Karzai and attempting to forge a far warmer relationship. They recognize that their initial strategy may have done more harm than good, fueling stress and anger in a beleaguered, conspiracy-minded leader whom the U.S. government needs as a partner.

“It’s not sustainable to have a ‘War of the Roses’ relationship here, where . . . we basically throw things at each other,” said another senior administration official . . .

The tension in the relationship stems from the cumulative impact of several White House decisions that were intended to improve the quality of the Afghan government. When Obama became president, he discontinued his predecessor’s practice of holding bimonthly video conferences with Karzai. Obama granted wide latitude to the hard-charging Holbrooke to pressure Karzai to tackle the corruption and mismanagement that have fueled the Taliban’s rise. The administration also indicated that it wanted many candidates to challenge Karzai in the August presidential election.

It turns out that the bullying routine was about as successful in Afghanistan as it has been in the Middle East. But don’t expect much self-reflection. Hillary Clinton is now tasked with the charm offensive. We learn: “As Mr. Karzai begins his new term, Mrs. Clinton has worked to avoid a hectoring tone in her public comments about him. American officials had done too much of that in the past, she said.” The past, meaning the past few months, I suppose.

Once again it seems as though we are having to relearn the lessons of Iraq. There, too, Democrats sneered at the government as hopeless and at its prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, as ineffectual and inept. With the success of the surge and the breathing room to establish a functioning civil government, that perception has changed. And likewise, in Afghanistan, the Obami may be learning belatedly (because they have chosen not to extract any meaningful lessons from the Iraq war, which they were ready to lose) that we actually need to bolster the native government if we hope to defeat our mutual enemy. You’d think smart diplomats would have figured this out much sooner.

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Confusion and Leaks Further Mar White House Afghan Policy

The Afghanistan policy review at the White House is getting more farcical — if that’s possible. It’s bizarre enough that every NSC meeting in this endless review is publicly announced and its contents are then leaked for public dissection in the next morning’s newspapers. Now we read in every major newspaper (see, e.g., in the Los Angeles Times, this) that Karl Eikenberry, the retired general who is the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, “has warned in classified cables against any further buildup of American forces in the country … saying that additional troops would be unwise because of the corruption and ineffectiveness of the Afghan government.”

One would think that the merits of this position would have been hashed out long ago (like, say, back in March, when the results of the last Afghan policy review were announced) and that President Obama would have concluded by now that we can’t simply write off Afghanistan because of the “corruption and ineffectiveness” of its government. But, no, Eikenberry’s cables seem to have landed with the impact of a mortar round in the White House and, if leaks are to believed, they have further reinforced the president’s tendency toward hesitation and doubt.

It does not exactly inspire confidence to read this account of the latest NSC meeting, from the New York Times:

A central focus of Mr. Obama’s questions, officials said, was how long it would take to see results and be able to withdraw.

“He wants to know where the off-ramps are,” one official said.

So the president is already looking to leave Afghanistan before he has even committed more forces? He’s more interested in an exit strategy than a strategy for success? What a terrible message to send to our troops and what a heartening message to send to our enemies.

It’s hard to know, of course, if this is an accurate reflection of what the man in the Oval Office is thinking — or simply a reflection of what the aides who are providing all these quotes for the media are thinking. Whatever the case, this bespeaks an extraordinarily chaotic and undisciplined White House decision-making process, with the president’s most senior advisers playing out their disagreements in public even after Gen. Stanley McChrystal had been chastised for making his own views known.

Whatever the president now decides, it will place one of our senior representatives in Kabul in a very difficult position. If the president decides to send a large number of additional troops, that will undermine the standing of Eikenberry. If he decides not to send those troops, he will undermine the standing of McChrystal. Either way, it will be harder for the two men to work together after their differences have been so publicly aired.

The Afghanistan policy review at the White House is getting more farcical — if that’s possible. It’s bizarre enough that every NSC meeting in this endless review is publicly announced and its contents are then leaked for public dissection in the next morning’s newspapers. Now we read in every major newspaper (see, e.g., in the Los Angeles Times, this) that Karl Eikenberry, the retired general who is the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, “has warned in classified cables against any further buildup of American forces in the country … saying that additional troops would be unwise because of the corruption and ineffectiveness of the Afghan government.”

One would think that the merits of this position would have been hashed out long ago (like, say, back in March, when the results of the last Afghan policy review were announced) and that President Obama would have concluded by now that we can’t simply write off Afghanistan because of the “corruption and ineffectiveness” of its government. But, no, Eikenberry’s cables seem to have landed with the impact of a mortar round in the White House and, if leaks are to believed, they have further reinforced the president’s tendency toward hesitation and doubt.

It does not exactly inspire confidence to read this account of the latest NSC meeting, from the New York Times:

A central focus of Mr. Obama’s questions, officials said, was how long it would take to see results and be able to withdraw.

“He wants to know where the off-ramps are,” one official said.

So the president is already looking to leave Afghanistan before he has even committed more forces? He’s more interested in an exit strategy than a strategy for success? What a terrible message to send to our troops and what a heartening message to send to our enemies.

It’s hard to know, of course, if this is an accurate reflection of what the man in the Oval Office is thinking — or simply a reflection of what the aides who are providing all these quotes for the media are thinking. Whatever the case, this bespeaks an extraordinarily chaotic and undisciplined White House decision-making process, with the president’s most senior advisers playing out their disagreements in public even after Gen. Stanley McChrystal had been chastised for making his own views known.

Whatever the president now decides, it will place one of our senior representatives in Kabul in a very difficult position. If the president decides to send a large number of additional troops, that will undermine the standing of Eikenberry. If he decides not to send those troops, he will undermine the standing of McChrystal. Either way, it will be harder for the two men to work together after their differences have been so publicly aired.

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The Seminar Drags On

Just when we thought the White House seminars were winding down, we get this report:

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.

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.

Are we back to square one, or is someone in the Obami camp simply trying to gum up the works? Maybe the president would like some more research. Maybe another round of meetings. Who knows? The process seems to have taken on a life of its own, and the president appears unwilling to make a decision, any decision.

Certainly even the most die-hard defenders of the president must be appalled. This is no way to run a war. We are close to a decision. No we aren’t. Gen. Stanley McChrystal will get his men. Oh, maybe not. It is hard to recall a more excruciating decision-making process.

And yet we are told, “The White House has chafed under criticism from Republicans and some outside critics that Obama is dragging his feet to make a decision.” They seem blissfully unaware that the Obami are becoming a ludicrous spectacle, a cringe-inducing display of equivocation. So maybe they’ll take a few more weeks. Consider some more options. Have some more meetings. And what about the troops who are in the field, week after week, awaiting a strategy and support? Oh yes, them. Well, the president can’t be rushed.

Just when we thought the White House seminars were winding down, we get this report:

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.

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.

Are we back to square one, or is someone in the Obami camp simply trying to gum up the works? Maybe the president would like some more research. Maybe another round of meetings. Who knows? The process seems to have taken on a life of its own, and the president appears unwilling to make a decision, any decision.

Certainly even the most die-hard defenders of the president must be appalled. This is no way to run a war. We are close to a decision. No we aren’t. Gen. Stanley McChrystal will get his men. Oh, maybe not. It is hard to recall a more excruciating decision-making process.

And yet we are told, “The White House has chafed under criticism from Republicans and some outside critics that Obama is dragging his feet to make a decision.” They seem blissfully unaware that the Obami are becoming a ludicrous spectacle, a cringe-inducing display of equivocation. So maybe they’ll take a few more weeks. Consider some more options. Have some more meetings. And what about the troops who are in the field, week after week, awaiting a strategy and support? Oh yes, them. Well, the president can’t be rushed.

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Via Romana

Until April 2006, Italy was America’s staunchest ally in Europe after Tony Blair’s Great Britain. The Italian government supported the war in Iraq, despite its unpopularity in Italy, and sent troops there to participate in the post-war efforts to stabilize the country. Ex-PM Silvio Berlusconi was a regular guest at the White House, and even visited President George W. Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas—a privilege extended only to the nation’s closest allies. But in April of last year a Center-Left coalition unseated Mr. Berlusconi; now, scarcely a year later, the once-friendly relations between Italy and the U.S. have gravely deteriorated.

First, Prodi’s government made good on its promise to withdraw Italian troops from Iraq. Then came last summer’s war in Lebanon. Though Italy pledged troops for the new UNIFIL, Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema’s excessive display of affection for Hizbullah MP Hussein Haji Hassan during a visit to Beirut did not help matters between Italy and the U.S. Italy was elected to one of the rotating seats on the UN Security Council with America’s blessing, but the U.S.-backed candidate from the Latin American bloc—Guatemala—failed to obtain Italy’s support in the face of Venezuela’s challenge. Despite Condoleezza Rice’s personal call to D’Alema to express American concern, Italy abstained. Thus, while a constant stream of Europe’s other Center-Left ministers has visited Washington, Prodi and D’Alema have been left to wait in Rome.

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Until April 2006, Italy was America’s staunchest ally in Europe after Tony Blair’s Great Britain. The Italian government supported the war in Iraq, despite its unpopularity in Italy, and sent troops there to participate in the post-war efforts to stabilize the country. Ex-PM Silvio Berlusconi was a regular guest at the White House, and even visited President George W. Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas—a privilege extended only to the nation’s closest allies. But in April of last year a Center-Left coalition unseated Mr. Berlusconi; now, scarcely a year later, the once-friendly relations between Italy and the U.S. have gravely deteriorated.

First, Prodi’s government made good on its promise to withdraw Italian troops from Iraq. Then came last summer’s war in Lebanon. Though Italy pledged troops for the new UNIFIL, Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema’s excessive display of affection for Hizbullah MP Hussein Haji Hassan during a visit to Beirut did not help matters between Italy and the U.S. Italy was elected to one of the rotating seats on the UN Security Council with America’s blessing, but the U.S.-backed candidate from the Latin American bloc—Guatemala—failed to obtain Italy’s support in the face of Venezuela’s challenge. Despite Condoleezza Rice’s personal call to D’Alema to express American concern, Italy abstained. Thus, while a constant stream of Europe’s other Center-Left ministers has visited Washington, Prodi and D’Alema have been left to wait in Rome.

The refinancing of Italy’s mission in Afghanistan proved to be another point of contention. Though Italy’s presence in Herat and Kabul is appreciated, Americans have been growing resentful of the unwillingness of the Italian government to commit troops to the fight against the Taliban in the south. Italy is not alone in its reluctance—Germany and Spain also have not committed military resources to the south. But a recent article by the ambassadors to Italy of six NATO countries whose troops are fighting—and dying—in southern Afghanistan irked the Italian foreign minister. The article called on Italy not to disengage. D’Alema called it “inopportune.”

In the last three weeks, Italy further tarnished its government’s credibility with the U.S. Under pressure from Rome, the Afghan government agreed to let five Taliban terrorists loose in exchange for an Italian hostage, Daniele Mastrogiacomo, a correspondent for La Repubblica. The Prodi government’s deal with the Taliban did nothing for Mastrogiacomo’s Afghan driver and interpreter, who were beheaded.

In a twist of fate, Kabul then arrested Rahmatullah Hanefi, the local point man of an Italian NGO called Emergency, headed by the renowned leftist radical Gino Strada, who had mediated the hostage release. The Afghan government accused Hanefi of double-dealing with the Taliban. Defending his associate, Strada retorted that Hanefi was beyond reproach: he had performed honorably last fall, when he delivered the Taliban a substantial sum of money for the release of another Italian hostage. Relying on Strada—who equates Bush with Osama bin Laden and considers the U.S. the chief perpetrator of international terrorism—proved to have been a terrible error. Italy now stands accused of bringing about the release of terrorists, of having sacrificed two Afghans to rescue one Italian, of having damaged Hamid Karzai’s government, and of having emboldened the Taliban.

Even outside the theater of the global war on terror, Italy’s government shows a new hostility to America. When a joint venture of AT&T and Mexico’s America Movil sought to buy a stake in Italian telecommunications giant Telecom, government ministers raised the banner of the “national interest” to prevent the company from falling into foreign hands. Prodi said he would be happy if Telecom were to remain under Italian ownership, though he promised no interference. D’Alema went a little farther, expressing his hope for an “Italian initiative” to keep Telecom from a foreign take-over and hinting that the parliament could override market considerations.

In less than a year, Prodi and D’Alema have caused, more or less, a complete breakdown in Italo-American relations. Is it any wonder that they are still waiting for an invitation to the White House?

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