Just kidding! That’s the last thing you want to hear on a Sunday. Stewart and Colbert don’t do weekend shows and Saturday Night Live is the last of the week’s snarky stuff and nonsense. Sunday is for earnestness. People go to church and dutifully listen to the usual sermon – play nice, do unto others as you would have them to unto you, turn the other cheek, don’t get caught up in the worldly stuff, because it doesn’t matter in the end at all. And Jesus loves you – and he loves you so much that if you don’t love him back, properly, he will makes sure you go straight to hell and suffer endless unimaginable agony, forever. You know the drill. It makes you sleepy. And the minister never stops suddenly, winks at everyone, and says he was just kidding – go get rich and keep it all to yourself, as being the one who gets and hoards all the toys and goodies shows that God favors you and not the other losers out there, and don’t turn the other cheek, because Jesus actually wants you to be intolerant of as much as you can manage, and screw over or get rid of those who offend you, in His name, because they offend Him and someone has to do the wet-work. And that stuff about feeding the hungry and comforting the weary and all those other good works – just kidding there too, as Jesus wants you to show tough love, by forcing people to care for themselves. The story of the Good Samaritan was just filler, for the rubes. And by the way, Jesus doesn’t love you. He thinks you’re kind of a jerk, and wishes you’d shape up.
No, you don’t hear any of that, unless you attend the evangelical megachurches in Southern California, Texas and Oklahoma. You hear what you expect to hear. Certain things have been said, and repeated, over and over, and you will hear them again. And that’s kind of comforting. And Sundays are for comfort – a day for things being as you’re told they are.
That’s why the first Sunday in December was odd. On the previous Tuesday, the first day of December, on the night of the full moon, President Obama spoke at West Point and laid out the plan for what to do about being at war in Afghanistan for eight years and not having a whole lot to show for it. The ninth year of the war would be different – we’d escalate, pouring in thirty thousand more troops, on top of the seventeen thousand more he sent just after he took office, and we’d befuddle and bedevil the bad guys so they’d finally be little problem at all, and get enough Afghans up to speed so they could take care of themselves without much of our help. And by July 2011 our guys could start packing for home.
What we’d have is success, and we could leave with a clear conscience and pay more attention to the mess we have here at home. He described a success, not a victory. Perhaps he thought no one would notice the wording. Or perhaps, when you think about it, these days one is as good as the other. And victory is a word everyone defines differently, for their own political ends. We won the war in Iraq after afew weeks, after all – mission accomplished. The word ceased being useful long ago. But we can have a success, or more properly a set of successful outcomes, and call it a day. That’s easier to manage.
So this is how the adventure ends. Afghanistan defeated the British – after many long years they finally gave up and walked away – and it ruined the Soviet Union after their ten years there, making its collapse inevitable. By July 2011 we’d be moving out, leaving the best situation we could realistically establish – no point in destroying ourselves by seeking perfection, or winning, whatever that means, when no one else ever could there. Yeah, yeah – America always wins, or dies trying. We’ll settle for succeeding. Dying while trying is no fun at all.
But the first Sunday in December we got the new message, as the New York Times reported. Just kidding:
The Obama administration sent a forceful public message Sunday that American military forces could remain in Afghanistan for a long time, seeking to blunt criticism that President Obama had sent the wrong signal in his war-strategy speech last week by projecting July 2011 as the start of a withdrawal.
Did someone mention withdrawal? Maybe you thought you heard that, but you didn’t:
In a flurry of coordinated television interviews, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other top administration officials said that any troop pullout beginning in July 2011 would be slow and that the Americans would only then be starting to transfer security responsibilities to Afghan forces under Mr. Obama’s new plan.
The television appearances by the senior members of Mr. Obama’s war council seemed to be part of a focused and determined effort to ease concerns about the president’s emphasis on setting a date for reducing America’s presence in Afghanistan after more than eight years of war.
“We have strategic interests in South Asia that should not be measured in terms of finite times,” said Gen. James L. Jones, the president’s national security adviser, speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “We’re going to be in the region for a long time.”
Echoing General Jones, Mr. Gates played down the significance of the July 2011 target date.
Just kidding, folks – and Gates, on CBS’s Face the Nation, made it clear. “There isn’t a deadline.” There’s just a specific date on which we will begin – and that was the key word – transferring responsibility for security district by district, province by province in Afghanistan, to the Afghans, and that could take forever. What did you think you heard? Ha, ha – gotcha!
But this had to be done:
The president’s speech set off alarms inside Afghanistan and Pakistan, as some officials worried about an American pullout before Afghan troops was ready to fight the Taliban on their own. It also set off a barrage of criticism from Republicans that the president was setting an arbitrary withdrawal date that would embolden Taliban insurgents to wait the Americans out.
On Sunday, the administration’s top civilian and military officials marched in lockstep in insisting that July 2011 was just the beginning, not the end, of a lengthy process. That date, General Jones said, is a “ramp” rather than a “cliff.”
That’s a cool metaphor, even if doesn’t clarify much. How steep is that ramp?
Well, there’s this:
During his recent inaugural address, Mr. Karzai said that Afghan forces would be able to take charge of securing Afghan cities within three years, and could take responsibility for the rest of the country within five years.
Now you can imagine the inclination of that ramp. But he too was just kidding, as Reuters reports:
Afghan President Hamid Karzai raised doubts on Sunday that his country could take over responsibility for its security by July 2011, while US leaders said the date was not a “drop-dead” deadline for Kabul.
Hamid Karzai will tell us when we can leave, not Obama.
And as for the point of the whole thing, since 2001, the Times added this:
Mr. Gates said it had been “years” since the United States had had reliable intelligence about Mr. bin Laden, but he said it was still the assumption of American intelligence agencies that he was hiding in North Waziristan, in Pakistan. General Jones said that Mr. bin Laden was believed to cross the border into Afghanistan occasionally, but he gave no further details about American assessments of his location.
This could take forever.
And in his Sunday column for the Times of London, Andrew Sullivan points out that this is rather insane:
To have experienced the blow of 9/11 and to watch almost a decade later as young Americans die for a Kleptocracy in Kabul and a sectarian bazaar in Baghdad is to experience a deeply demoralizing and discouraging morass. Osama Bin Laden, moreover, remains at large – eight years after the worst mass murder in US history. And he is sheltered by a supposed ally that has received enormous sums of aid.
Americans see all of this as they lose jobs in vast numbers, or see their wealth vanish in a collapsing housing market, or struggle to send their children to college or even a doctor. They know, too, that even with all this sacrifice and effort, their security remains tenuous.
That’s why no president could have announced, as some Republicans wanted, an indefinite massive campaign in Afghanistan. It simply isn’t sustainable – politically or economically. The country is more broke than at any time since the Second World War in a global economy still vulnerable to another relapse.
So he says it’s no wonder that the new Pew survey shows what it does. Pew has polled Americans for decades on their attitude towards the wider world, measuring how unilateralist and isolationist the national mood is, or, by contrast, how multilateral and interventionist.
Sullivan says that the results were striking:
The percentage of Americans now saying that the US should “mind its own business” and let the rest of the world get on with it is now higher than it ever was during the Vietnam War and higher than it was in the low point of the Carter era. A full 49% of Americans now favor isolationism. The previous peaks were 41% in 1995 and 1976; at the height of the Vietnam War, the isolationist position mustered only 35%.
For the first time, most Americans also see China as the pre-eminent economic power; and 47% believe that Afghanistan will revert to the Taliban once the US leaves.
In short, it’s unlikely that many, other than John McCain and the crew at the weekly Standard, and Dick Cheney, got a kick out of the coordinated Sunday message from the Obama administration – that they were just kidding about withdrawal. It seems, from the data, that people have had quite enough of adventures of this sort.
And Sullivan says elsewhere – “I wonder if the neocon right has a strategy for the predicament their own overreach precipitated.” No – of course they have no strategy. It’s all Obama’s problem now. Ha, ha – gotcha!
So what are we doing there? In a little-noticed comment at this site, Bill Nichols wonders about that:
The Secret Service has taken a beating recently for letting aspiring reality show stars attend a White House shindig, but that led to some good news at a congressional hearing. After he was threatened during his campaign and the first few months of his administration by an unusually high number of hate messages, President Barack Obama now draws about the same level of virulent loathing as George W. Bush and Bill Clinton did. Still, our president is subject to daily attacks. He’s accused of embracing communism and fascism from one end of the political spectrum and betraying liberal values from the other.
My own view of Obama was influenced by his “A More Perfect Union” speech in Philadelphia in March of 2008, when he eloquently asked us to consider the role of race in our society. This is a politician with unusual courage and wisdom, I concluded, and I’ve been slow to join the chorus of disappointed backers. My old friend Fred Bruning, who has written for “Newsweek,” “Newsday,” and the Canadian weekly newsmagazine “Maclean’s,” recently cautioned me: “In my view, the sooner we see our president as a man – like all other world leaders – captured by his own ego and motivated by an equal combination of self-interest and high civic intent, the better.” Sending more men and women to kill and be killed in Afghanistan, Fred argues, is a terrible mistake.
Fred, I fear, is right, and my efforts to find wisdom in a policy that looks increasingly like the policies that unraveled the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam and George W. Bush in Iraq begin to feel futile. Could Obama’s December 2nd speech on Afghanistan and Pakistan mask a brilliant attempt to transcend the choice between a limited war of anti-terrorism, relying heavily on drones to do the killing, and the expensive and prolonged nation-building counter-insurgency favored by his military advisers? Does the president want to move us into a kind of police action that could be supported even by pacifists who allow for the “magistrate’s sword” to protect those unable to protect themselves? I think of a book, “Three Cups of Tea,” that tells what a difference schools for girls make in the rural villages of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Projects like those of Greg Mortenson nurture the life of villages and of Afghans who might someday be able to build a stable nation where there is now 28% adult literacy.
But that is not what we are emphasizing, which Nichols argues leave us in something far worse than a muddle:
If we acknowledge the innocents killed by drones as collateral damage, what happens to the soul of a nation that kills suspected terrorists and their families systematically and secretly, based on intelligence provided by people whose motives are often questionable? Could the movement of more troops to Afghanistan, provide an alternative to assassination-by-drones? But on the day after Obama’s December 2nd speech, Scott Shane reported in the “New York Times”: “The White House has authorized an expansion of the CIA’s drone program in Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas, officials said this week, to parallel the president’s decision, announced Tuesday, to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. American officials are talking with Pakistan about the possibility of striking in Baluchistan for the first time – a controversial move since it is outside the tribal areas – because that is where Afghan Taliban leaders are believed to hide.”
President Barack Obama has lost his way in Afghanistan, as many leaders have before him. We should wish him well in his efforts to shore up our weakened economy, bring health care to all who need it, and address climate change. But unless members of Congress show uncharacteristic courage in opposing the expansion of another war, our country is likely to elect a Republican in 2012.
Maybe so, unless Palin runs with Beck, but it is what it is. And Frank Rich in his Sunday column argues that Obama’s logic is no match for Afghanistan:
Obama’s speech, for all its thoughtfulness and sporadic eloquence, was a failure at its central mission. On its own terms, as both policy and rhetoric, it didn’t make the case for escalating our involvement in Afghanistan. It’s doubtful that the president’s words moved the needle of public opinion wildly in any direction for a country that has tuned out Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq alike while panicking about where the next job is coming from.
You can think the speech failed without questioning Obama’s motives. I don’t buy the criticism that he contrived a cynical political potpourri to pander to every side in the debate over the war. Nor was his decision to escalate mandated by his campaign stand positing Afghanistan as a just war in contrast to the folly of Iraq. Nor was he intimidated by received Beltway opinion, which, echoing Dick Cheney, accused him of dithering. (“The urgent necessity is to make a decision – whether or not it is right,” wrote the Dean of D.C. punditry, David Broder.)
Obama’s speech struck me as the sincere product of serious deliberations, an earnest attempt to apply his formidable intelligence to one of the most daunting Rubik’s Cubes of foreign policy America has ever known. But some circles of hell can’t be squared.
So we get “a holding action that lacks both a credible exit strategy and the commitment of its two most essential partners, a legitimate Afghan government and the American people.” And “Obama’s failure illuminated the limits of even his great powers of reason.” Sometimes there’s no way out.
And Rich argues Obama is learning the lesson Lyndon Jonson learned with Vietnam:
As LBJ learned the hard way, we can’t have both guns and the butter of big domestic projects, from health care to desperately needed jobs programs. We have to make choices. Obama paid lip service to that point, but the only sacrifice he cited in the entire speech was addressed to his audience at West Point, not the general public – the burden borne by the military and military families. While the president didn’t tell American civilians to revel in tax cuts and go shopping – as his predecessor did after 9/11 – that may be a distinction without a difference. Obama’s promises to accomplish his ambitious plans for nation building at home while pursuing an expanded war sounded just as empty.
And of course the speech fell flat:
There are several reasons why. First, 9/11 has been cheapened by the countless politicians who have exploited it, culminating with Rudy Giuliani. The sole achievement of America’s Former Mayor’s farcical presidential campaign was to render the evil of 9/11 banal. Second, 9/11 is eight years in the past. Looking at the youthful faces of the cadets in Obama’s audience on Tuesday, you realized that they were literally children on that horrific day, and that the connection between 9/11/01 and the newest iteration of the war they must fight in a new decade is something of an abstraction.
Finally, the notion that we are still fighting in Afghanistan because the 9/11 attacks originated there is based on the fallacy that our terrorist enemies are so stupid they have remained frozen in place since 2001.
Obama has to be kidding, right?
No, Rich argues that Obama wasn’t kidding around, as Obama was actually making a risky bet:
Americans want our country to be secure. Most want Obama to succeed. And so we hope that we won’t get bogged down in Afghanistan while our adversaries regroup elsewhere, that the casualties and costs can be contained, that the small, primitive Afghan Army (ravaged by opium, illiteracy, incompetence and a 25 percent attrition rate) will miraculously stand up so we can stand down. We want to believe that Obama’s marvelous powers of reason can check a ruthless enemy and reverse decades of tragic history in one of the world’s most treacherous backwaters.
That’s the bet Obama made.
Put it that way, defining the actual task at hand, perhaps Obama is only kidding himself.