Category Archives: Afghanistan

Kaplan says it’s time to get out of Afghanistan. But there’s a catch

Time to Get Out of Afganistan” over the byline of Robert Kaplan grabbed my eye this morning. Of course, it did so in part because I’m one of the dummies who confuses him with Robert Kagan. But it was still interesting.

It starts out this way:

Kaplan, not Kagan

Kaplan, not Kagan

The decision by President Trump to withdraw 7,000 of the roughly 14,000 American troops left in Afghanistan, possibly by summer, has raised new concerns about his impulsive behavior, especially given his nearly simultaneous decision to pull out all American forces from Syria against the advice of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. But the downsizing of the Afghan mission was probably inevitable. Indeed, it may soon be time for the United States to get out of the country altogether…

And then continues with words that sound like they should be read aloud by Peter Coyote, as I’ve been rewatching Ken Burns’ series on Vietnam during my morning workouts lately:

No other country in the world symbolizes the decline of the American empire as much as Afghanistan. There is virtually no possibility of a military victory over the Taliban and little chance of leaving behind a self-sustaining democracy — facts that Washington’s policy community has mostly been unable to accept….

Not only that, but he suggests that our efforts there, which provide a modicum of stability for the moment, are actually proving to be an advantage to the Chinese, Pakistanis, Indians and Iranians — allowing them to operate in the area with some safety at our expense — than they are to us and out interests.

But before we stark striking camp and heading for home, read what Kaplan writes further down:

An enterprising American diplomat, backed by a coherent administration, could try to organize an international peace conference involving Afghanistan and its neighbors, one focused on denying terrorist groups a base in South-Central Asia.

It is the kind of project that Henry Kissinger, Richard Holbrooke, James Baker III or George Shultz would have taken up in their day. But it is not something anyone can reasonably expect this administration, as chaotic, understaffed and incompetent as it is, to undertake, especially with the departure of Mr. Mattis….

Oh, well…

Graham’s enthusiastic response to Trump’s Afghan plan

Trump still

I missed Trump’s speech last night because I was writing that post about Jack Van Loan — and was surprised when I went back downstairs to find that it was over. I thought I’d catch at least some of it.

But I’m familiar with the gist. And since I got this response from Lindsey Graham today, I’ll use that as a device to get into the subject:

Graham: “Gloves Are Off Inside Of Afghanistan”

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) last night on Fox News reacted to President Trump’s new Afghanistan strategy.

Ø  GRAHAM: “I think there will be a lot of bipartisan support in Congress for this new proposal. I’m proud. I’m relieved. I’m proud of the fact that President Trump made a national security decision, not a political decision. I’m proud of the fact that he listened to the generals. I’m most proud of the fact that he shows the will to stand up to radical Islam.” https://youtu.be/2oZhfvbGd9c?t=9s

Ø  GRAHAM: “We’re going to make our decisions based on conditions on the ground, not on the arbitrary passing of time. So hats off to President Trump for not becoming General Trump. Because General Obama was a real lousy general, and that’s part of the mess we’re inheriting…” https://youtu.be/2oZhfvbGd9c?t=2m49s

First, let me say that while I, too, disagreed with him on Afghanistan, I would take President Obama — or either Bush, Clinton or Reagan — back in a skinny minute if it meant getting rid of Trump. And I could really do without the silly red-meat stuff about “gloves are off” and “the will to stand up to radical Islam.” It’s silly, and undermines serious people’s ability to take him seriously. He’s a smart man; he can express himself more intelligently, however much he wants to repair relations with what is euphemistically called “the base.”

Next, I’ll shift gears and express my great relief that for once, Trump seems to have allowed himself to learn from experts rather than going with his gut. That’s a big step. We’d be in a lot better shape if he’d learn to listen to ALL experts, and not just the generals — although listening to generals is a fine start.

Finally, I agree with Graham and Trump that setting deadlines to leave Afghanistan is the worst of ideas.

My rule of thumb is this: If we send troops into a situation with a departure date in mind, we shouldn’t send the troops in at all. Nor should we set dates for departure after we send them in. That makes it almost impossible to achieve military objectives, whatever the objective. (“Hey, enemy, just hunker down and wait until this date, and you can take over!”)

And that’s about it, except to say again that it’s a relief to see Trump listening to people who actually know what they’re talking about, for once. Wherever we go from here in Afghanistan, this is far better than a commander-in-chief calling the shots on the basis of grossly ill-informed whim.

But my relief isn’t so enormous that I’m going to gush about it the way Graham did…

Bergdahl case more muddled than the initial return of Brody in ‘Homeland’

Nicholas Brody, in Rebekah Brooks mode.

Nicholas Brody, in Rebekah Brooks mode.

No, I’m not saying he’s a terrorist or anything. I’m talking about the very beginning of the TV series — the initial, apparent situation of Gunnery Sgt. Nicholas Brody, freed after years in the hands of terrorists.

Initially, to the public at least, the situation seemed entirely straightforward — an American hero had been returned to his country and the bosom of his family (never mind the situation with his wife, which that phrase brings to mind). Delta Force had gone and gotten him — no negotiating with terrorists — and brought him right home. The country had a celebration, and everyone acted as though he would of course (being a Marine) have completely uncomplicated feelings toward his country. Politicians of the flag-waving sort couldn’t wait for him to run for office.

That he turned out to have been brainwashed into becoming a terrorist, in a case of Stockholm Syndrome taken to the nth degree, was a surprise to everyone except the viewer.

By contrast, we have the curious case of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, which has degenerated over the weekend from being a topic of celebration to a point at which, if you type “Bergdahl” into Google, the first guess you get is “Bergdahl deserter:”

Google Bergdahl

From the beginning, there was something… off… about this case. Something I kept trying to shove aside because I wanted to be happy for this soldier and his family.

The first hint was a mention, in the first news story I read, that Bergdahl had fallen into Taliban hands after “walking away” from this unit. Say what?

Then I saw the parents celebrating with the president. OK, POTUS wouldn’t do a thing like this if there were anything fishy about the case, would he? So it must be what it seems to be — the joyous return of the last American held by enemy forces in either the Iraq or Afghanistan theater. So, hurrah.

I was shoving aside my reaction of, “Wait a minute. We don’t negotiate with terrorists, do we?” I was ignoring my concern that we were putting five hard cases back on the street. So what if the Qatar one-year cooling-off thing didn’t comfort me much? Never mind that if they hadn’t renounced the Taliban in all these years at Gitmo, why would a year in Qatar keep them from rejoining the jihad? I decided to take the president’s “no man left behind” explanation at face value, and move on.

I set the whole thing aside until this morning, when I saw another picture of the Bergdahls on the front of the WSJ. Which made me think again, just how young are these people? The sergeant’s Mom is kind of a babe, and his Dad… well, I’d been suppressing my reaction to the Dad’s appearance. It occurred to me maybe he had sworn not to shave or trim his beard until his son was home — and I’ve seen references to that effect since. But I was still curious about them, and started to search.

That’s when I got the “deserter” reference. I first brushed past it, seeking info about the Bergdahls mère et père, but then came back and pursued it, and quickly found:

  • Statements by his parents saying they understood they couldn’t see their son for awhile, or even speak with him, because he had to “decompress.” Huh. OK. Does this mean the military is making sure it doesn’t have a Nicholas Brody case on its hands? Odd case of life reacting to fiction, if so. Odder still because the president was doing a victory lap on getting this guy back.
  • The claims by some of his comrades that he was a deserter, and that better men were killed hunting for him. A claim that, disturbingly, Chuck Hagel doesn’t refute. This is the most disturbing element of this whole story.
  • Allegations out there that Bergdahl’s father, Robert, tweeted the following before deleting it:

 

bergdahl

… which would be weird on a couple of levels, not least because it made it sound like releasing people from Gitmo was the Dad’s actual motive here — rather than an unfortunate thing that was necessary for his son to be freed. Which would be the kind of thing you’d expect from a Dad invited to celebrate with the president at the White House.

The complaints I read about yesterday from members of Congress, GOP members of Congress, about not being in the loop — that I had ignored. Members of Congress are always seeing themselves as entitled to information that I don’t necessarily think is owed them.

But the point made by John McCain that these were very bad guys we were letting go — that worried me.

And it particularly worried me if what we got in return was a guy who may be facing charges for the circumstances in which he was captured.

This is just a very weird case. And it’s particularly weird that the president would take such political risk — negotiating with the Taliban, releasing their people without consulting Congress — for a soldier whose story is so very muddled.

I find myself wondering if there’s something we’re not being told. Maybe Sgt. Bergdahl was on a mission, say — sent into Taliban hands as an agent provocateur and so to those in the know, there’s nothing suspect in his behavior, or … But then I think, I’ve watched too many movies and TV shows with strange plots.

I don’t know what to think. I know that it’s now hard to greet this soldier’s return with complete, unalloyed joy. Which is a terrible shame. I don’t like having this reaction. I hope what I learn going forward sweeps all doubts away…

Graham, McCain, et al., on Afghanistan drawdown

I missed this release yesterday, but it still seems to me worth sharing:

Graham, Ayotte, McCain on Afghanistan Troop Withdrawal Announcement

 

WASHINGTON ­– U.S. Senators Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), Kelly Ayotte (R-New Hampshire) and John McCain (R-Arizona) released the following statement on President Obama’s announcement on Afghanistan today, which includes withdrawing all U.S. troops from the country by the end of 2016:

 

“The President’s decision to set an arbitrary date for the full withdrawal of U.S. troops in Afghanistan is a monumental mistake and a triumph of politics over strategy. This is a short-sighted decision that will make it harder to end the war in Afghanistan responsibly.

 

“The President came into office wanting to end the wars he inherited. But wars do not end just because politicians say so. The President appears to have learned nothing from the damage done by his previous withdrawal announcements in Afghanistan and his disastrous decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq. Today’s announcement will embolden our enemies and discourage our partners in Afghanistan and the region. And regardless of anything the President says tomorrow at West Point, his decision on Afghanistan will fuel the growing perception worldwide that America is unreliable, distracted, and unwilling to lead.

 

“The alternative was not war without end. It was a limited assistance mission to help the Afghan Security Forces preserve momentum on the battlefield and create conditions for a negotiated end to the conflict. The achievement of this goal, and the withdrawal of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, should be determined by conditions on the ground, not by the President’s concern for his legacy.

 

“All wars end. The question is how they end. The war in Iraq has ended in tragedy. And it is difficult to see how we can succeed in Afghanistan when the President tells our enemies that our troops will leave by a date certain whether they have achieved our goals or not.”

 

###

On a side note… I’ve pretty much gotten Kelly Ayotte playing Shemp to Joe Lieberman’s Curly, but I still miss the old Three Amigos. By the way, I went looking at her website to remind myself what Sen. Ayotte looks like, and as my old softball teammate Dave Moniz would have said, key lid

Ayotte

And yeah, that’s David “Big Papi” Ortiz with her.

Graham: Leave more troops in Afghanistan

Just now seeing this release that moved late yesterday:

Graham, Ayotte, McCain Issue Statement on Afghanistan

WASHINGTON—U.S. Senators Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), Kelly Ayotte (R-New Hampshire), and John McCain (R-Arizona) today made the following statement on Afghanistan.

“We hope a recent press report that the White House is considering a post-2014 force in Afghanistan well below the recommendations of our military commanders is incorrect.

“After 13 years of sacrifice and investment, success in Afghanistan is now within our grasp. The last thing we should do in the coming years is increase the risks to our mission unnecessarily. We believe the recommendations of our military leaders represent sound military advice and would allow for continued U.S. support in the areas still needed by Afghan security forces. Maintaining several thousand additional U.S. troops in Afghanistan could mean the difference between success and failure.

“This is the lesson of Iraq. The administration ignored sound military advice and adopted a high risk strategy of withdrawing all U.S. troops. The result, tragically, is a resurgent Al-Qaeda, rising violence, and growing risk of renewed sectarian conflict. That fatal mistake in Iraq must not be repeated in Afghanistan.

“We stand ready to support a follow-on force that is consistent with the recommendations of our military commanders and that will end the war in Afghanistan with success.”

###

I generally agree. The total pullout from Iraq was a terrible move, and I’d hate to see it repeated. Too many have sacrificed too much to abandon Afghanistan to the Taliban.

Robert Gates, the quintessential national security professional, judges ex-boss Obama harshly

Coming from the source it comes from, this is pretty devastating:

In a new memoir, former defense secretary Robert Gates unleashes harsh judgments about President Obama’s leadership and his commitment to the Afghanistan war, writing that by early 2010 he had concluded the president “doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.”Gates cropped

Leveling one of the more serious charges that a defense secretary could make against a commander in chief sending forces into combat, Gates asserts that Obama had more than doubts about the course he had charted in Afghanistan. The president was “skeptical if not outright convinced it would fail,” Gates writes in “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War.”…

The source is someone for whom I’ve always had the utmost respect, as I’ve written in the past. Other political appointees come and go, but Gates has always seemed to me the real-life version of what the fictional George Smiley was in John le Carre’s world:

Mr. Gates is a Smileyesque professional. He was the only Director of Central Intelligence ever to have come up through the ranks. He had spent two decades in the Agency, from 1969 through 1989, with a several-year hiatus at the National Security Council. He received the National Security Medal, the Presidential Citizens Medal, the National Intelligence Distinguished Service Medal (twice) and the Distinguished Intelligence Medal (three times).
I trust professionals, particularly those who have devoted themselves to national service. Not in every case, of course — there are idiots and scoundrels in every walk of life — but if all other things are equal, give me the pro from Dover over someone’s golf buddy every time…

You know the real-life “golf-buddies” and campaign contributors and hangers-on. The fictional counterparts to them, in the le Carre world, would be Saul Enderby and, to a lesser degree, Oliver Lacon.

It’s one thing for Republicans and other professional detractors to attack the president’s national security seriousness. For Robert Gates to do it is quite another thing.

Do you really think it’s not a war if Americans aren’t there?

As the kōan goes, “If a tree falls in the woods and no one’s around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

Here’s a tougher one to contemplate on this Veteran’s Day: If there’s a war and no Americans are participating in it, is there still a war?

Many Americans, based on rhetoric I’ve heard in recent years regarding Iraq and Afghanistan, would apparently answer, “no.”

Sorry. “Rhetoric” isn’t quite the word. It suggests overtly political speech. I’m talking about plain ol’ everyday newswriting at the moment.

From an AP story today about the president’s remarks on Veteran’s Day:

Obama used his remarks to remind the nation that thousands of service members are still at war in Afghanistan. The war is expected to formally conclude at the end of next year, though the U.S. may keep a small footprint in the country.

Soon, “the longest war in America’s history will end,” Obama declared.

The boldfaced emphasis is mine.

I think sometimes that my years on the editorial pages made me more sensitive, not less so, to creeping editorializing in news copy. I know it, and I recognize it when I see it. And I saw it there — the representation of a worldview rather than straight reporting.

In the president’s partial defense, he didn’t exactly say the first of those boldfaced statements, although he did say the second one, the one that was a direct quote (I mean, one would certainly hope so, AP):

Our work is more urgent than ever, because this chapter of war is coming to an end.  Soon, one of the first Marines to arrive in Afghanistan 12 years ago — Brigadier General Daniel Yoo — will lead his Camp Pendleton Marines as they become one of the last major groups of Marines to deploy in this war.  And over the coming months, more of our troops will come home.  This winter, our troop levels in Afghanistan will be down to 34,000.  And by this time next year, the transition to Afghan-led security will be nearly complete.  The longest war in American history will end.

He was right when he said “this chapter… is coming to an end.” That doesn’t overstate the case the way the AP version did.

And on the second statement, I suppose you can defend the president on a technicality, saying that it would then end as “our war” — but only in that sense. And such a statement still represents a rather startling indifference toward what happens after we’re gone. It suggests that after we’re no longer in a position to hear them, we don’t care how many trees fall.

Scramble ‘Karzai’ and you get ‘Kraazi’…

Our situation in Afghanistan just took a really dramatic downturn:

KABUL—Afghanistan’s fraying ties with the U.S. hit a new low on Sunday, as President Hamid Karzai said before meeting the new U.S. defense secretary that the Taliban kill Afghan civilians “in the service of America.”

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is visiting Kabul to discuss ways of ending America’s longest foreign war. On Saturday, Mr. Hagel’s first full day in Afghanistan, Taliban suicide bombers killed at least 18 people outside the Afghan Ministry of Defense in Kabul and in the eastern province of Khost.

In a televised speech Sunday, the Afghan president said the U.S. doesn’t really see the Taliban as an enemy, doesn’t want to leave the country after the coalition’s mandate ends at the end of 2014, and is engaged in negotiations with Taliban leaders behind his back.

“Taliban are every day in talks with America, but in Kabul and Khost they set off bombs to show strength to America,” Mr. Karzai said. “The bombs that went off in Kabul and Khost yesterday were not a show of power to America, but were in service to America… It was in the service of foreigners not withdrawing from Afghanistan.”…

I don’t even know what to say about this (gimme time; I’m thinking), but I thought y’all might…

I like Ryan’s foreign policy ideas for themselves, NOT as a justification for his domestic proposals

We think of Paul Ryan as an über-libertarian on fiscal issues and as a social conservative. What I didn’t know anything about until this morning was how he stood on the most urgent questions a commander in chief faces — which is pretty critical in the event that Romney is elected, and something happens to him.

One expected the opinion writers of The Wall Street Journal to be hugging themselves with pleasure over Ryan’s fiscal notions. But today, Bret Stephens writes in the Journal about a speech Ryan gave to the Alexander Hamilton Society last year in which he expressed himself on foreign policy. Here’s the speech, and here’s the column. An excerpt from the latter:

Here, in CliffsNotes form, is what the speech tells us about Mr. Ryan. First, that he’s an internationalist of the old school; in another day, he would have sat comfortably in the cabinets of Harry Truman, Jack Kennedy or Ronald Reagan. Also, that he believes in free trade, a strong defense, engagement with our allies—and expectations of them. Also, that he wants America to stay and win in Afghanistan. Furthermore, that he supports the “arduous task of building free societies,” even as he harbored early doubts the Arab Spring was the vehicle for building free societies.

It tells us also that Mr. Ryan has an astute understanding of the fundamental challenge of China. “The key question for American policy makers,” he said, “is whether we are competing with China for leadership of the international system or against them over the fundamental nature of that system.”

Within the speech itself, perhaps the most cogent observation is that the United States doesn’t have the realistic option of fading as a world power the way Britain did, and the way so many on the left and right would like it to do:

Unlike Britain, which handed leadership to a power that shared its fundamental values, today’s most dynamic and growing powers do not embrace the basic principles that should be at the core of the international system.

Now, that’s the sort of thing I agree with. What I don’t agree with is that we have to do all the things Ryan wants to do domestically in order to afford the kind of global position that we can’t afford to surrender. Which takes us into all sorts of other debates that I’m sure we’ll get into before the election…

Anyway, that’s where he loses me. What I didn’t get from the column, and did get from the speech itself, is that for Ryan, the need to maintain U.S. responsibilities in the world is yet another excuse for doing what he wants us to do on the homefront. Of this, I am unconvinced. I agree we have to get our fiscal house in order. I don’t necessarily believe his ideas are the way to do it. Bottom line, we get back to where we started — in his case, his view of America’s role in the world is that of an über-libertarian on fiscal issues…

Stephens is less divided in his admiration. In part, he admires Ryan for setting out clear ideas without any of the softened edges with which presidents must speak, giving little consideration to the fact that House members with no diplomatic responsibility are far freer to speak frankly on such matters.

The truth is, I have generally agreed with the actual actions Mr. Obama has taken as commander in chief (although my views on Afghanistan more closely track Ryan’s). And those speak louder than words, however stirring.

For instance, Stephens likes the way Ryan talks tougher about the Chinese. But it is Barack Obama who has shifted future defense planning toward the Pacific Rim with China in mind, and recently decided to send Marines to Australia in keeping with that strategy.

In any case, this is the beginning of a learning process about Ryan. Although I’m already inclined to agree with Stephens that, in terms of ideas at least, the GOP ticket seems upside-down.

Post: Why should troops die in Afghanistan this year if we’re leaving next year?

The Washington Post had a thought-provoking editorial this morning. Excerpts:

On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta floated an entirely different plan: an end to most U.S. and NATO combat operations in Afghanistan by the second half of 2013, a year earlier than expected, and a substantial cut in the previously planned size of the Afghan armed forces. So much for “fight.” Though Mr. Panetta didn’t say so, this strategy implies another big U.S. troop reduction in 2013, beyond the pullout of about one-third of troops already planned for this year. U.S. commanders have lobbied to keep the troop strength steady from this coming autumn until the end of 2014 — the current endpoint for the NATO military commitment.

The new timetable may sound good to voters when Mr. Obama touts it on the presidential campaign trail. But how will the Taliban, and its backers in Pakistan, interpret it? Before negotiations even begin, the administration has unilaterally and radically reduced the opposing force the Taliban can expect to face 18 months from now. Will Taliban leader Mohammad Omar have reason to make significant concessions between now and then? More likely, the extremist Islamic movement and an increasingly hostile Pakistani military establishment will conclude that the United States is desperate to get its troops out of Afghanistan, as quickly as possible — whether or not the Afghan government and constitution survive….

But if President Obama has decided to pursue that course, there’s an inevitable next question. If the goal of a stable and democratic Afghanistan is to be subordinated — if timetables are to be accelerated, regardless of conditions — why should U.S. ground troops fight and die this year?

That’s always the question, when timetables are given for withdrawal: If we’re going to withdraw at a certain time regardless of conditions, what’s the point of fighting now?

It’s a brutally tough question whether you come at it from the direction of a hawk or a dove.

“Eisenhower of our generation” visits Columbia

Some guy who needs a haircut, the general in mufti, and our senior senator./photo by Christy Cox

Gen. David Petraeus, now of the CIA, spoke today in Columbia, at the Riley Institute’s David Wilkins Awards for Excellence in Legislative and Civic Leadership luncheon.

Rep. James Smith and former Blue Cross CEO Ed Sellers were the recipients. It was James (a.k.a. Capt. Smith) who, in his acceptance speech, called Petraeus “the Eisenhower of our generation.” I concur. There’s no general officer in recent years who combines Ike’s strategic vision, diplomatic skill and leadership qualities to the extent that Gen. Petraeus does.

For his part, Petraeus praised not only James and Ed, but the troops he has felt privileged to lead before joining Central Intelligence. He called them “our new greatest generation.”

Those who serve certainly deserve that sobriquet. The difference is that they are only a tiny sliver of an actual generation, unlike the one that overcame the Depression and beat Hitler and Tojo.

Which only underlines how much the rest of us owe to them, each of them, from the commanding general to the lowliest buck private.

Combat ‘sensitivity training’

Can’t say I was crazy about the headline, which aside from the awkwardly split infinitive seems to presume aberration as the norm (probably unintentionally). But I found the idea intriguing:

Can soldiers be trained to not become war criminals?

Halfway through a 15 month, high-intensity combat deployment in Iraq,  soldiers were shown videos of ethically dicey situations they might encounter with civilians. The question researchers wanted to answer was: can soldiers who are already suffering enormous amounts of stress — literally fearing for their lives — be trained to stop and think long enough to prevent unethical behavior?

The answer, happily, is yes. In a study published in the Lancet, researchers concluded that a combination of videos and leader-led discussion groups led to “significantly lower rates of unethical conduct of soldiers and greater willingness to report and address misconduct than in those before training.”

From the paper:

For example, reports of unnecessary damage or destruction of private property decreased from 13·6% before training to 5·0% after training, and willingness to report a unit member for mistreatment of a non-combatant increased from 36·0% to 58·9%. Nearly all participants reported that training made it clear how to respond towards non-combatants.

You wouldn’t think “sensitivity training” or its equivalent would work in the highest stress environment on the planet, but apparently it does. One caveat: soldier’s ethical or unethical behavior was self-reported, so it’s possible that soldiers who had the training were simply reporting less of it because they had been made aware that it was wrong. But isn’t that exactly the mechanism by which ethics training works?

Of course, it sort of militates against the training of U.S. soldiers since the Korean War — training in acquiring targets rapidly and firing immediately and accurately (which makes our soldiers deadlier than any since the introduction of firearms, but leads to a lot of PTSD, since it leads to shooting first and thinking about it later).

But with the kinds of conflicts we face these days, it’s more important than ever to be sure to shoot at the right targets — not only morally, but in terms of eventual effectiveness. One of the greatest pitfalls in places like Iraq and Afghanistan is alienating the civilian populace through mistakes.

So while I’m not entirely convinced that such training works, I hope it does. We need soldiers to shoot straight, but they have to be more sure than ever it’s the bad guys they’re shooting at. For their sakes and the sake of the country as well as for the innocent bystanders.

Full engagement, the only viable, effective and moral stance for the U.S. to take toward the world

Posting that column last night — the one from 9/23/01 — I realized that I had forgotten to post something else a week earlier.

When I shared with you the hasty column I wrote for the “extra” we put out on 9/11, and the one I turned around immediately and wrote for the next day, I had fully intended also to share a more important piece from several days later — the editorial I wrote for that following Sunday. But the 16th of this month came and went, and I failed to do that.

So I share it now. Being an editorial (an institutional, rather than personal opinion) and being a Sunday piece (when newspapers take a step back from immediate events, and also when they tend to express the views they regard as being of greatest import), it’s different from the other pieces. Less of my voice and style, more formalized. But at the same time, for the purposes of this blog, it also has perhaps greater value as a clear expression of my own views of what the nation should do going forward.

In it, I expressed views I had long held, and still hold, but they were sharpened and set into relief by the events of that week.

Spoiler alert: Basically, this piece is about a couple of things. The first is the need for re-engagement in the world, after a growing isolationism that had worried me all through the 90s. With notable exceptions — our involvement in the Balkans, for instance — we had become more insular, more preoccupied with our own amusements as a fat, happy nation. Up to that point, I had objected on the basis that when you are the world’s richest and most powerful nation (indisputable after the fall of the USSR), it is morally wrong to turn your back on the world, like a rich man behind the walls of his gated community. What 9/11 did was add to that the fact that such disengagement was positively dangerous.

The other main point is something I later learned an interesting term for: DIME, for “Diplomatic,” “Information,” “Military” and “Economic.” Actually, that’s not quite it, either. The DIME term refers to ways of exerting power, and that it certainly part of it, but not all of it. Another piece of the concept I was talking about was what you often hear referred to as “soft power.” Unfortunately, that is often mistakenly expressed as an alternative to “hard power.” But they complement each other. A unipolar power trying to achieve all of its goals through either alone is doomed to fail, ultimately.

No, I have to go back to the earlier, vaguer term: Engagement. On every level you can think of — diplomatic, cultural, mercantile, humanitarian, and yes, military.

Much of this piece, given the moment in which it was written, is occupied with the military part. That’s natural. That’s the hardest to persuade people of in our peaceful times (if you doubt we live in peaceful times, I plan a post after this one to address that). The rest, people just nod about and say, yes, of course we should do those things. (OK, perhaps I’m being a bit sanguine about that. I’ll just say that the people who need convincing on the military part are likely to say that — others are likely to say ‘Hell, no — let them fend for themselves.” And thus we have the two sides of isolationism.) They take more convincing on the tough stuff. (Some of you will object, “Not after 9/11! People’s blood was boiling!” But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m not talking about passions of the moment. I was talking about long-term policy. I’m talking about what happens after people calm down and say, Never mind; let’s just withdraw.)

Reading it now, I wish the piece had been longer, with far more explication of the other elements, and how they were integrated. The following years, we saw constant argument between two views, neither of which saw the value of the whole concept. On the one hand, you had the Bushian — really, more the Rumsfeldian — notion that all you had to do was topple a tyrant and things would be fine. On the other, there was the myopic view that soft power was the only kind that was moral and effective.

These ideas are as relevant now as ever. Now that we have employed hard power to topple a tyrant in Libya, will we engage fully on other fronts to help Libya have a better future, one in which it has a chance of being a long-term friend, ally and trading partner? Or will we turn our attention away now that the loud noises have stopped going off?

Anyway, I’ve explained it enough. Here it is:

IN THE LONG TERM, U.S. MUST FULLY ENGAGE THE WORLD

State, The (Columbia, SC) – Sunday, September 16, 2001

IF YOU HAD MENTIONED the words “missile defense shield” to the terrorists who took over those planes last Tuesday, they would have laughed so hard they might have missed their targets.

That’s about the only way it might have helped.

Obviously, America is going to have to rethink the way it relates to the rest of the world in the 21st century. Pulling a high-tech defensive blanket over our heads while wishing the rest of the world would go away and leave us alone simply isn’t going to work.

We are going to have to drop our recent tendencies toward isolationism and fully engage the rest of the world on every possible term – military, diplomatic, economic and humanitarian.

Essentially, we have wasted a decade.

After the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union crumbled, there was a vacuum in our increasingly interconnected world, a vacuum only the United States could fill. But we weren’t interested. After half a century of intense engagement in world affairs, we turned inward. Oh, we assembled and led an extraordinary coalition in the Gulf War – then let it fall apart. We tried to help in Somalia, but backed out when we saw the cost. After much shameful procrastination, we did what we should have done in the Balkans, and continue to do so. We tried to promote peace in the Mideast, then sort of gave up. But by and large, we tended our own little garden, and let the rest of the world drift.

We twice elected a man whose reading of the national mood was “It’s the economy, stupid.” Republicans took over Congress and started insisting that America would not be the world’s “policeman.”

Beyond overtures to Mexico and establishing a close, personal relationship with Vladimir Putin, President Bush initially showed little interest in foreign affairs.

Meanwhile, Russia and China worked to expand their own spheres of influence, Europe started looking to its own defenses, and much of the rest of the world seethed over our wealth, power and complacency.

Well, the rest of the world isn’t going to simply leave us alone. We know that now. On Tuesday, we woke up.

In the short term, our new engagement will be dominated by military action, and diplomacy that is closely related to military aims. It won’t just end with the death or apprehension of Osama bin Laden. Secretary of State Colin Powell served notice of what will be required when he said, “When we’re through with that network, we will continue with a global assault against terrorism in general.” That will likely mean a sustained, broad- front military effort unlike anything this nation has seen since 1945. Congress should get behind that.

At the moment, much of the world is with us in this effort. Our diplomacy must be aimed at maintaining that support, which will not be easy in many cases.

Beyond this war, we must continue to maintain the world’s most powerful military, and keep it deployed in forward areas. Our borders will be secure only to the extent that the world is secure. We must engage the help of other advanced nations in this effort. We must invest our defense dollars first and foremost in the basics – in keeping our planes in the air, our ships at sea and our soldiers deployed and well supported.

We must always be prepared to face an advanced foe. Satellite intelligence and, yes, theater missile defenses will play roles. But the greatest threat we currently face is not from advanced nations, but from the kinds of enemies who are so primitive that they don’t even have airplanes; they have to steal ours in order to attack us. For that reason, we must beef up our intelligence capabilities. We need spies in every corner of the world, collecting the kind of low-tech information that espiocrats call “humint” – human intelligence. More of that might have prevented what happened last week, in ways that a missile shield never could.

But we are going to have to do far more than simply project military power. We must help the rest of the world be more free, more affluent and more democratic. Advancing global trade is only the start.

We must cease to regard “nation-building” as a dirty word. If the people of the Mideast didn’t live under oligarchs and brutal tyrants, if they enjoyed the same freedoms and rights and broad prosperity that we do – if, in other words, they had all of those things the sponsors of terror hate and fear most about us – they would understand us more and resent us less. And they would, by and large, cease to be such a threat to us, to Israel and to themselves.

This may sound like an awful lot to contemplate for a nation digging its dead out of the rubble. But it’s the kind of challenge that this nation took on once before, after we had defeated other enemies that had struck us without warning or mercy. Look at Germany and Japan today, and you will see what America can do.

We must have a vision beyond vengeance, beyond the immediate guilty parties. And we must embrace and fulfill that vision, if we are ever again to enjoy the collective peace of mind that was so completely shattered on Sept. 11, 2001.

Our nation’s strength just lost more than 31 men

I probably shouldn’t have had this awful thought, because the loss of 31 soldiers is 31 individual tragedies that radiate throughout our countries, breaking the hearts of their families and friends, and all those who did or ever would depend upon them.

But the thought I had when I heard of the U.S. helicopter shot down in Afghanistan was, “I hope it wasn’t Special Ops people.” I said that because, having so recently read the account of the raid on Abbottabad, the initial details of the loss sounded like it was consistent with the kind of helicopter operation that SOC people perform all the time in that part of the world. And since our nation increasingly depends on that very small number of super-elite troops — the very same people being involved in taking out bin Laden, the Somali pirates and countless strategically important raids in Afghanistan and Pakistan — the loss of any significant number of them would be like losing a regiment in prior days. That’s the cold calculation that went on in my head along with the personal shock of losing so many fellow Americans, so many fellow humans.

But then my fears were realized:

WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. officials tell The Associated Press that they believe that none of the Navy SEALs who died in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan had participated in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, although they were from the same unit that carried out the bin Laden mission.

Sources say that more than 20 Navy SEALs were among those lost in the crash in Afghanistan.

The operators from SEAL Team Six were flown by a crew of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. That’s according to other AP sources, one current and one former U.S. official. All sources spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military matters.
One source says the team was thought to include 22 SEALs, three Air Force air controllers, seven Afghan Army troops, a dog and his handler, and a civilian interpreter, plus the helicopter crew…

God help their families. And the rest of us as well.

Congressman Joe Wilson, antiwar activist

Here’s another chapter in what I wrote about back here, in the post headlined “Are we starting to see a geologic shift between left and right on national security?”…

I’ll give you the two items backwards. Friday afternoon, I received this release from Joe Wilson:

(Washington, DC) – Congressman Joe Wilson (SC-02) released the following statement after the House of Representatives voted against authorizing the limited use of the United States Armed Forces in Libya:

“The President’s decision to ignore the Constitution along with the War Powers Resolution has led us to this point. Choosing not to consult with Congress on this conflict was complicated even further by this Administration’s failure to explain and outline a plan of action to the American public.

“NATO is one of America’s closest allies. I do not want to jeopardize the progress it has made in removing Muammar Gaddafi from power. However, the President’s failure to actively engage Congress forces me to vote against committing our Armed Forces on the ground in Libya.”

I hope y’all didn’t get whiplash in that last paragraph. Let’s see, would not want in any way to jeopardize NATO’s mission in Libya (which, last time I checked, was not officially removing Gaddafi, but we can wink and nod at that one), on account of NATO being our great friends and all. BUT… he wants to tie Obama’s hands in supporting that mission, on account of, you know. Obama being Obama.

There are just so many bizarre things going on here. Republicans (especially Republicans of the strong national defense wing, like Joe Wilson) caring about the flippin’ War Powers Resolution. I mean, normally you hear folks in that camp saying the War Powers Resolution is what violates the Constitution. Then… well, I’ll let y’all figure out all the bizarre things about it. Here’s a news story on what Joe’s talking about, by the way.

I wanted to share something else with you. That morning, before the vote, this piece by Kimberley A. Strassel (normal world view: Obama bad, Republicans good) appeared in The Wall Street Journal. It was headlined, “The GOP’s War Powers Opportunism: Republicans abandon principle in a rush to score political points on the president.” I’m going to take a chance here of getting into trouble with the Journal by quoting large chunks of the piece, because it just makes so many good points. Here goes:

But what fun is there in criticizing Democrats on national security when the GOP is offering up a much more embarrassing spectacle? In their rush to score points on the president, what congressional Republicans have actually managed to do is hurt themselves. They’ve highlighted their own divisions and given voters reason to question whether the party is throwing over principle in favor of political opportunism or, more worrisome, a new form of GOP isolationism.

In the space of a few months, Republicans have gone from coherently criticizing Mr. Obama’s timid approach to the Arab awakening, to a few weeks ago incoherently losing 87 members to antiwar Democrat Dennis Kucinich’s resolution to end military engagement in Libya. This caused an open rift in the party, compelling Sen. John McCain to stand up for U.S. victory and sponsor a resolution giving Mr. Obama freedom of action for another year.

House Republicans have very publicly let it be known that they intend to hold a vote on Mr. McCain’s resolution—solely so that they can very publicly vote him down. Not satisfied that this is an ample enough rebuke to those who would win a war, the GOP is now working to pass legislation to defund the president’s Libya mission. That’s right, House Republicans (not House Democrats) intend to kneecap a commander in chief….

… House leaders are of the view that failing to take action against the president is the equivalent of letting him “get away” with his snubs and bad policy and to “win” on this issue. The only real winner of a Libya withdrawal is, of course, a terrorist named Moammar Gadhafi. But try telling that to a GOP that has come full circle to congressional Democrats, circa 2006, who masked their ambitions to undermine President Bush behind lofty arguments of Iraq “oversight.”

Speaking of 2006, some of this is also the consequence of a party with no obvious leader. Mr. Bush kept his caucus (barely) on Iraq only by constantly reminding members of the stakes. Those GOP candidates who would follow Mr. Bush have been mostly craven on Libya and Afghanistan, with Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann more worried about winning the next public-opinion poll than winning a war. House Speaker John Boehner remains reluctant to openly engage his excitable freshmen. Rather than lead on Libya, his default has been to try to make the best of a fractious GOP—for instance, by offering up a less-bad version of the Kucinich resolution.

To the extent there is political pressure, it comes from the tea party, which has no interest in foreign policy but is instead focused on spending and federal powers. This has helped to drive the growing group of self-described constitutionalists and war-deficit-hawks who are giving rise to a new brand of Republican isolationism.

The prevailing antigovernment feeling has allowed folks like Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul to spin the Libya mission as some sort of affront to the Constitution, since Mr. Obama failed to beg Congress’s approval for Libya, as required by the 1973 War Powers Act. Never mind that conservative scholars will point out that it is the War Powers Act itself that is unconstitutional. That used to be the general GOP view, but with “Obama violated the Constitution” making for such a delicious sound bite among base voters, Republicans are willing to forget the past.

Really, I wanted to quote the whole thing, but restrained myself slightly, giving you only the parts that best address what Joe Wilson and the majority did yesterday.

I urge you to go read it all — and browse the site, and give your custom to the Journal’s advertisers, so they will forgive me for quoting so extensively. It will be worth your while.

By the way, other “conservative” pundits are not getting on the House’s case here. George Will is attacking John McCain for, as Ms. Strassel wrote, daring “to stand up for U.S. victory and sponsor a resolution giving Mr. Obama freedom of action for another year.” Mr. Will’s column is headlined “John McCain’s never-ending war.” Mr. Will seems angry with Sen. McCain for daring to call the latest trend among Republicans “isolationism.” But that (coupled with Obama Derangement Syndrome) is precisely the right word. And it’s not entirely a new thing. We’ve been here before.

Are we starting to see a geologic shift between left and right on national security?

This is something I’ve been thinking about the last few days, and I haven’t written about it because it’s complicated and I haven’t had time to do something pulling all the threads together. But when I saw this development, I decided I’d better go ahead and throw out the general idea and get the discussion started:

Obama Says War Powers Act Doesn’t Apply to Libya Mission

White House maintains that the president doesn’t need lawmakers’ permission for U.S. role in NATO-led effort.

The White House on Wednesday told skeptical lawmakers that President Obama doesn’t need their permission to continue the nation’s involvement in the NATO-led mission in Libya because U.S. forces are playing only a supporting role there.

Administration lawyers made their case as part of a larger report sent to Congress responding to complaints that the president had yet to provide a sufficient rationale for continuing the Libya campaign, the New York Times reports.

“We are not saying the president can take the country into war on his own,” State Department lawyer Harold Koh told the paper. “We are not saying the War Powers Resolution is unconstitutional or should be scrapped, or that we can refuse to consult Congress. We are saying the limited nature of this particular mission is not the kind of ‘hostilities’ envisioned by the War Powers Resolution.”…

OK, digest that. Here’s the NYT version, and here’s the WashPost. And then consider some of the other things I’ve been noticing lately:

  • The fact that, in the GOP debate the other night, we heard some Republicans moving more toward the “get out of Afghanistan ASAP” line. Ron Paul, treated as an outcast for saying such things four years ago, got cheered by the Fox News crowd.
  • The bold way Obama decided to go in and GET bin Laden, without any of that multilateral consult-the-allies (as in, tell the Pakistanis we’re attacking in the heart of their country) touchy-feely stuff. No fooling around.
  • The way the administration is playing on having stunned the world with the bin Laden thing to get its way elsewhere. That prompted me to write that the difference between Bush and Obama is that Bush was Sonny, while Obama is the far-deadlier (that is, more effective) Michael.
  • The way Obama is taking advantage of chaos in Yemen to just GO AFTER terrorists there, without asking Congress or the UN, or presenting arguments about the War Powers Act, or anything like that. Read this, and this.

This has been building ever since the election, with a lot of Obama’s antiwar base feeling pretty disoriented (wait — is this who we elected?), and people like me being reassured by his steady pragmatism.

But lately, the process has seemed to be accelerating. Obama still talks a good war-as-last-resort, multilateral, we-don’t-want-to-be-a-bully line for the base… but watch what happens. (And how about the way he threw everybody off-balance on Libya, letting the FRENCH of all people take the lead, while still managing to get in there and go after the bad guys? That enabled him to have it both ways. The allies couldn’t do it without us, but it came across looking like we were a reluctant junior partner, which bought Obama some support for the move among liberals.)

And I find myself wondering, is anyone else noticing? I mean, while the Republicans get more timid about the U.S. role abroad (in some ways) and obsess more and more about domestic issues (because that’s what the Tea Party cares about), Obama is out there going all JFK and LBJ. He’s going Old School. He’s defining Democratic presidential leadership back to where it was before Vietnam.

Are the parties moving toward switching places?

This is a fascinating development. I think it has the potential to completely realign the country politically, and on more than national security.

Anybody else noticing this?

Shooting replaces tough talk

In case you weren’t worried enough about this whole relationship thing with Pakistan:

Well, this isn’t going to make an alreadytense relationship any better.

A brief firefight between Pakistani ground troops and NATO helicopters erupted early Tuesday morning near the Afghan boarder. Pakistan claims that two of its soldiers were wounded as a result of the clash, and officials are demanding a meeting with NATO leaders to address the situation, Reutersreports.

Pakistan has admitted that the ground troops opened fire first, but maintains that they were in the right because the two helicopters had crossed into Pakistan’s airspace from Afghanistan, the New York Timesreports. Western military officials, meanwhile, have so far declined to say whether the helicopters were indeed over Pakistan…

Sec. Clinton helps point way to what’s next

Of course, at such an emotion-packed historic moment as this, one encounters a lot of foolishness, from the behavior of those drunken college kids outside the White House last night to people who will actually say (and this I find stunning), OK, we got him, let’s leave Afghanistan

I thought Hillary Clinton’s remarks this morning addressed that rather nicely:

Here at the State Department, we have worked to forge a worldwide anti-terror network. We have drawn together the effort and energy of friends, partners, and allies on every continent. Our partnerships, including our close cooperation with Pakistan, have helped put unprecedented pressure on al-Qaida and its leadership. Continued cooperation will be just as important in the days ahead, because even as we mark this milestone, we should not forget that the battle to stop al-Qaida and its syndicate of terror will not end with the death of bin Ladin. Indeed, we must take this opportunity to renew our resolve and redouble our efforts.

In Afghanistan, we will continue taking the fight to al-Qaida and their Taliban allies, while working to support the Afghan people as they build a stronger government and begin to take responsibility for their own security. We are implementing the strategy for transition approved by NATO at the summit in Lisbon, and we supporting an Afghan-led political process that seeks to isolate al-Qaida and end the insurgency. Our message to the Taliban remains the same, but today it may have even greater resonance: You cannot wait us out. You cannot defeat us. But you can make the choice to abandon al-Qaida and participate in a peaceful political process….

Indeed, to the extent that the death of bin Laden sends a useful message to the world — to our friends and enemies — is that we will NOT give up. It’s about continuity and persistence. And it’s a powerful message. This is a time for following up the advantage provided by demoralization among the Taliban and al Qaeda at this moment, a moment created by the death of that movement’s chief symbol. Secretary Clinton explains it well.

Some thoughts on Robert Gates’ recent remarks

I like that headline. Sort of 19th century-sounding in its plainness. Anyway, moving on…

Back on the previous post, Phillip said:

This is somewhat indirectly related to issues raised by #1, but I couldn’t help wondering what you made of Sec’y Gates’ remarkable speech at West Point last week:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/26/world/26gates.html

And I responded in a comment that seems worth a separate post, to wit…

Phillip, I had several thoughts about Gates’ remark (which, for those who missed it, was “In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.”):

  • First, my facetious reaction — Asia? Africa? Middle East? So that leaves what? Europe? Australia? South America? Antarctica? Quite a sweeping set of eliminations. Next thing you know, we won’t be able to go war anywhere, and he’ll be out of a job. Golly, I wonder if the world will cooperate with us on that, and make sure, out of sympathy to our preferences, that the next crisis demanding a deployment of U.S. ground troops happens in, say, Sydney. MayBE, but it seems unlikely.
  • I like Robert Gates (here’s a column I did about him in 2006), have liked him ever since he became CIA director in the 80s (and especially liked him when he delivered us from the disaster of Rumsfeld), so he has my sympathy. And I fully understand why someone who’s had the challenges he’s had as SecDef.
  • From a pragmatic standpoint, what he says makes all the sense in the world. That’s why the option we’re looking at in Libya is a no-fly zone — you know, the mode we were in in Iraq for 12 years during the “cease-fire” in that war against Saddam that started in 1990 and ended in 2003. It’s manageable, we can do it easily enough (we and the Brits are the only ones with the demonstrated ability to provide this service to the people of Libya and the world). Air superiority is something we know how to assert, and use.
  • Ground forces are a huge commitment — a commitment that the United States in the 21st century appears politically unwilling to make. If you’re a pragmatist like Gates — and he is, the consummate professional — you consider that when you’re considering whether the goals are achievable. We’ve demonstrated back here on the home front that we’re unable to commit FULLY to a nation-building enterprise the way we did in 1945. It takes such a single-minded dedication on every level — military, economic, diplomatic — and that takes sustained commitment. One is tempted to say that there’s something particular about Americans today that prevents such a consensus — our 50-50, bitter political division, for instance — but really, this is the norm in U.S. history. The anomaly was 1945. It took two world wars for us to bring us to the point that we could make that kind of commitment.

So there you go. I had another bullet in mind, but was interrupted (blast that person from Porlock!), and it hasn’t come back to me yet. Please share your own thoughts…

I’d like to see Obama COMMIT to something

My friends at The State were right today to praise the fact that President Obama is working with Republicans on a compromise on taxes and unemployment benefits. But they were equally right to be unenthusiastic about the deal itself.

On the one hand, it’s good that we’re not going to see our economy further crippled by untimely tax increases (even if all they are are restorations to pre-Bush levels). And it’s good that the jobless needing those benefits will have them. (At least, that these things will happen if this deal gets through Congress.) On the other, we’re looking at a deal that embodies some of the worst deficit-ballooning values of both parties: tax cuts for the Republicans, more spending for the Democrats.

It’s tragic, and bodes very ill for our country, that this flawed compromise stirs such anger on both partisan extremes: Some Democrats are beside themselves at this “betrayal” by the president. (Which bemuses me — as y’all know, I have trouble understanding how people get so EMOTIONAL about such a dull, gray topic as taxes, whether it’s the rantings of the Tea Partiers who don’t want to pay them, especially if the dough goes to the “undeserving poor,” or the ravings of the liberal class warriors who don’t want “the undeserving rich” to get any breaks. Why not save that passion for something that really matters?) Meanwhile, people on the right — such as Daniel Henninger in the WSJ today — chide Obama for not going far enough on taxes.

In this particular case, I think the folks on the right have a bit of a point (some of them — I have no patience for DeMint demanding the tax cuts and fighting the spending part), but it doesn’t have to do with taxes — it has to do with the president’s overall approach to leadership, and a flaw I see in it. Henninger complains that these tax cut extensions are unlikely to get businesses to go out and invest and create jobs, since the president threatens to eliminate the cuts a year or two down the line.

That actually makes sense (even if it does occur in a column redolent with offensive right-wing attitudes — he sneers at Ma Joad in “The Grapes of Wrath”), and I see in it echoes of the president’s flawed approach in another important arena — Afghanistan.

Here’s the thing: If keeping these tax cuts is the right thing to do to help our economy, then they should be kept in place indefinitely — or “permanently,” as the Republicans say. Of course, there is nothing permanent in government. The next Congress, or the one after that, can raise taxes through the roof if it chooses.

The problem, in other words, isn’t that the cuts won’t be permanent, because nothing is in politics. The problem is that the president is, on the front end, negating whatever beneficial effect might be gained from extending the cuts by coming out and promising that they won’t last.

One of the big reasons why the economy hasn’t improved faster than it has this year is that businesses, small and large, have not known what to expect from the recent election in terms of future tax policy with these tax cuts expiring. People were waiting to see what would happen on taxes before taking investment risks. (Even if the liberal Democrats were to eliminate the cuts, knowing that would be better than the uncertainty.) And even with the election over, the future has remained murky. The best thing about such a deal between the president and the GOP should be that it wipes away those clouds and provides clarity.

But the president negates that by saying yes, we’ll keep the cuts in place, but only for a short time. You may look forward now to a time when there are unspecified increases. And Henninger has a point when he says:

But if an angry, let-me-be-clear Barack Obama just looked into the cameras and said he’s coming to get you in two years, what rational economic choice would you make? Spend the profit or gains 2011 might produce on new workers, or bury any new income in the backyard until the 2012 presidential clouds clear?

Ditto with the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. What good is it to say we’re going to stay and fight NOW if at the same time you give a future date when you’re going to leave (or, as the president has said, start leaving)? What are they going to do? They’re going to sit tight and wait for you to leave on schedule.  (And yes, pragmatic people may take comfort from the fact that the president has allowed himself lots of wiggle-room to stay there — but the harm has been done by the announcement of the intention to leave). Every effort should be taken to make one’s adversaries believe you’re willing to fight them forever (even if you aren’t), if you ever hope to achieve anything by fighting.

The problem in both cases is trying to have one’s cake and eat it, too — making a deal with the Republicans without one’s base getting too mad at you, or maintain our security commitment without (here comes that base thing again) freaking out the anti-war faction too much. What this ignores is that out in the REAL world, as opposed to the one where the parties play partisan tit-for-tat games, real people react in ways that matter to your policy moves: Business people continue to sit rather than creating jobs; the Taliban waits you out while your allies move away from you because they know they have to live there when you’re gone.

What would be great would be if Barack Obama should commit for the duration to something. He should have committed to a single-payer approach to health care from the beginning. Going in with a compromise meant that we got this mish-mash that health care “reform” turned into. He should commit to a plan on the economy, and not undermine it by saying he’s only going to do it for a little while. And most of all, he should commit to Afghanistan, and not try to mollify his base with dangerous deadlines.

What the president does, and even says, matters. He needs to recognize that, pick a direction, and stick with it long enough to have a salutary effect. Whatever their ideology, that’s what leaders do. And we could use some leadership.