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Afghanistan: Presidential Double Standards and Military Power

The time will come sooner or later when President Obama will have to stand up to the military and face the inevitably shrill attacks from the armchair commanders and "conservative" bloviators who populate the mainstream media.

On October 23, 1983, when Shia militants in Lebanon killed 241 American military personnel outside the Beirut airport with a suicide truck bomb, President Ronald Reagan vowed to continue the troops' mission in Lebanon. Reagan had repeatedly claimed that Lyndon Johnson forced American soldiers to fight in Vietnam "with one hand tied behind their backs" and vowed he'd never do such a thing. But about four months after what was the highest single-day casualty toll for the U.S. military since the Vietnam War, President Reagan quietly removed from Lebanon the remaining 1,300 or so American soldiers. Given Reagan's hawkish credentials he didn't have to worry about being portrayed as "soft" on America's enemies abroad. The moral of the story is that if any president is going to "cut and run" from an American military engagement, he or she better be a Republican.


This narrative runs deep in American political discourse. Joe McCarthy accused FDR of selling out to Joseph Stalin at Yalta and blasted Harry Truman and the "Democrat State Department" for "losing" China to Mao's communists. Truman showed his resolve by initiating loyalty oaths and intervening militarily in Korea. John Kennedy had to prove his "toughness" toward Fidel Castro's Cuba and even escalated his anti-communist rhetoric beyond Richard Nixon's during the 1960 campaign. Like Truman, Kennedy showed his mettle by green-lighting the Bay of Pigs invasion, which turned out to be a disaster. Both Kennedy and LBJ escalated American military involvement in Vietnam reacting, in part, to the never-ending Republican criticism that accused them both of "losing" Vietnam just as Truman had "lost" China (especially Johnson).

In contrast, the mainstream press gave President George W. Bush and Dick Cheney a free ride in Iraq even though their military adventure has proven to be one of the worst foreign policy fiascoes in American history. General David Petraeus, Bush's commander in the field and currently CENTCOM commander, gave Bush a lot of political cover among elite opinion makers as well as the public in the heat of the acrimonious presidential campaign of 2004.

At a time when the Swift Boaters were maligning the military service of Democratic candidate John Kerry, and slammed anyone hinting that America should do anything in Iraq other than "stay the course," General Petraeus wrote a politically-tinged op-ed for the Washington Post championing the wisdom of Bush's Iraq policies. Not only was Petraeus sucking up to his boss but he seemed to skew his military advice so that it boosted Bush's credibility on a war that he had lied the nation into fighting in the first place. Hence, as with every other government agency, from the Justice Department to the General Services Administration, the Bush Administration seemed to have made great headway in politicizing even the U.S. military. It's doubtful General Petraeus will be so generous sharing his tactical acumen with the public in a way that politically benefits President Barack Obama.

John F. Kennedy's thousand-day presidency depended in large part on his ability to stand up to the "brass hats" (as he called them) who constantly called for military action in Cuba, Vietnam, and elsewhere. During the Cuban Missile Crisis Kennedy held firm against their hawkish advice to defuse the nuclear standoff that if mishandled could have annihilated millions of people. President Obama will soon learn that the "brass hats," especially the holdovers from the Bush Administration, might be operating under similar biases. The sooner he shows them who the Commander-in-Chief really is, the better.

Unelected military and civilian defense officials had free range in the Bush Administration. Today, from C-SPAN to CNN, we see the usual stable of hawks giving their armchair military advice to Obama urging him to up the ante in Afghanistan, send in more troops, spill more American blood, and throw away more American treasure. If public opinion polls are any indicator the American people changed the channel on the Afghan war some time after the word "Tora Bora" entered the political lexicon. The pursuit of an ill-defined "victory" dependent on a greater U.S. military commitment and on the actions and popularity of the corrupt Hamid Karzai "government" has lost all credibility with the American public.

The time will come sooner or later when President Obama will have to stand up to the military and face the inevitably shrill attacks from the armchair commanders and "conservative" bloviators who populate the mainstream media. I watched Kimberly Kagan the other night on C-SPAN, the president of the Institute for the Study of War, and wife of the Bush military adviser Fred Kagan, prattle on about how Obama must escalate the American military presence in Afghanistan or face "failure" and "defeat." Her advice was just so drearily repetitive: "We must stay in Iraq or Afghanistan (or fill-in-the-blank) because the generals say so and because our national security depends on taking the fight to Al Qaeda and if we leave we'll face uncertainty and . . ." (Zzzzzzzz.)

Obama must ignore the likes of the disastrously wrong crowd who inundate the media with their "realistic" and "sober" assessments of what needs to be done in Afghanistan.

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Afghanistan is not even a "failed state" because to qualify as a "failed state" a nation must at least first be a "state." We should declare "victory" and get the hell out of there. I'm sorry but the country is a basket case.

Obama cannot listen to the crackpot realists like Kim and Fred Kagan, Mike O'Hanlon, or any of the other "experts" who loved the war in Iraq and now want President Obama to pour more U.S. soldiers into Afghanistan. Kabul, a city of about 4 million people, doesn't even have a functioning sewage system. Why don't we start there, create an enclave and make life a little better for those people before we do anything else? There are more Pashtuns in Pakistan than in Afghanistan and the "borders" between those two countries don't mean anything. Al Qaeda is in Pakistan and Somalia and Europe. In Pakistan we don't even know which side the ISI is on. All of these unfortunate facts raise the question: Exactly what "nation" is the United States "building" in Afghanistan?

The fact that Afghanistan seems to be reaching the tipping point after these long eight years gives Obama an opportunity to establish what could be a nascent "Obama doctrine" that emphasizes multilateralism and engagement over the failed Bush policies of unilateralism and saber rattling.

Obama recognizes what Bush and John Bolton and Kim Kagan and the rest of the neo-cons could not get through their thick skulls: Whether we are talking about Afghanistan and Pakistan, Israel and Palestine, or the Iranian nuclear issue, all conflicts are regional conflicts. Multilateralism works; unilateralism doesn't.

The one silver lining of the terribly misguided Bush foreign policy might be that it showed the world that the United States couldn't go it alone. Any U.S. president can land on an aircraft carrier in a flight suit and prance around proclaiming "Mission Accomplished," but the United State can't turn the clock back to a "golden age" (that never really existed) where it can dictate terms to the rest of the world. Truman didn't "lose" China because it was not ours to lose. Johnson didn't "lose" Vietnam for the same reason, and Jimmy Carter couldn't have prevented the Iranian revolution even if he launched a hundred "Operation Eagle Claws." Military threats without dialogue and engagement only strengthen the hardliners.

The major problems facing the planet of nuclear proliferation, terrorism, climate change, and financial meltdown require collective action. President Obama showed last week with his historic performances at the United Nations and at the G-20 summit that he understands the nature of the new world order and knows how to cut through the white noise of the armchair generals and so-called experts. Through engaged and thoughtful multilateralism a new era in American relations with the world is possible. Making a clean break with the "conventional" wisdom about how to deal with Afghanistan would be a great starting point.

Next year, Arnold Schwarzenegger's circus will leave Sacramento. The cigar tents will be packed up and his menagerie of lobbyists and hangers-on will follow him out of town. And like a departing circus it will leave in its wake a barren field strewn with garbage and elephant shit. Whoever is the next Republican nominee for governor will have to at least promise to clean up some of this mess. The last thing the state needs is a Margaret Thatcher wannabe.

Joe Palermo

Joseph Palermo

Originally published by the Huffington Post. Reprinted with permission from the author