Analysis & Opinions - The Providence Journal

Whatever He Decides, Afghanistan Will Hurt Obama

| October 9, 2009

SINCE TAKING OFFICE President Obama has sought to symbolically distance himself from the previous administration by very publicly putting forth an Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy — AfPak, in Beltway parlance. The AfPak white paper reads like a Cliff's Notes version of a counterinsurgency manual: Expand Afghan security forces, bolster the legitimacy of the national government, and so on. The implicit message in the public unveiling of this to-do list was that, unlike Bush & Company, Obama and his advisers had done their homework when it came to nation-building.

By now, the Obama administration is probably aware of the common saying that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. The resiliency of the Taliban insurgency has led Gen. Stanley McChrystal to declare the situation in Afghanistan "serious," and his review of the ongoing campaign there has created the distinct possibility of a larger deployment of American forces. But if Obama is skeptical, or even pessimistic, about the chances of the AfPak plan's success, history shows he is unlikely to significantly alter course. If the president is unsure of what impact withdrawing from Afghanistan would have on national security, he is probably more certain that such a policy shift would be disastrous for his ambitious domestic agenda.

Some have called Afghanistan Obama's Vietnam. Though historical analogies can obscure more than they reveal, revisiting the time shortly after the 1964 presidential election can show how the political calculations of Lyndon Johnson and Obama might overlap. Johnson and his Cabinet foresaw that war in Vietnam would be a long and costly endeavor. The president had privately declared that the U.S. was losing to the communists, while Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and Secretary of State Dean Rusk believed that there was no better than a 50-percent chance of turning the situation around through escalation.

Nevertheless, Johnson favored increasing America's commitment to South Vietnam. Though he had won the presidency by a comfortable margin, Johnson predicted that withdrawal from Southeast Asia would create a bloc of Republicans and conservative Democrats in Congress who would derail his Great Society programs. In Johnson's words, leaving Vietnam would mean "an endless national debate . . . that would shatter my presidency, kill my administration, and damage our democracy."

Harry Truman faced a similar dilemma the first year of the Korean War. Gen. Douglas MacArthur's "end the war" offensive was allowed to proceed even as a potential Chinese counter-intervention began to loom large. This was in part because of conflicting intelligence reports, but halting what had been a successful advance could not have been palatable in an election year. Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson did not have the anti-communist credentials of MacArthur, the storied (and vocal) commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific in World War II and prospective Republican presidential candidate.

President Obama faces the same domestic political threats seen by Democratic presidents in Vietnam and Korea. He has a substantial agenda to get through the legislature, health-care reform being the most prominent example. While hopes of garnering Republican votes on the Hill may have withered, the president still depends on conservative Democrats if his reforms are to be made into law. Like Truman, Obama must be wary of attacks from his right flank on issues of national security. So far, criticisms of Obama's stance on issues like Guantánamo and "enhanced" interrogations have lacked much credibility. If the president were seen as backing down in Afghanistan, however, such attacks would start coming with increased frequency and intensity.

For all these reasons Obama is unlikely to decrease his commitment to Afghanistan, even if assessments of the situation there grow increasingly dire. Instead he will probably opt to push the day of reckoning down the road. This is not just cynical politics on Obama's part. Powerful, success-oriented individuals tend to believe they can find solutions to even the most intractable problems if they are given enough time. As a result, they underestimate the long-term risks and costs of their actions. Gambles that would be eschewed if their consequences were immediate are embraced instead.

What the president must consider is whether or not mitigating the danger to his present political coalition is worth the continuance of a war that may be unwinnable. Obama should evaluate the likelihood of continued military action abroad creating deep rifts within his own base, a fragmentation Johnson witnessed during Vietnam that was likely more consequential than any temporary alignment against him in Congress.

No matter what choice Obama makes regarding Afghanistan, his political fortunes are bound to suffer. When there are no good answers, however, the responsible choice is to do what is necessary to preserve American lives and resources. If the future in Afghanistan looks grim, Obama should not delude himself into thinking that success is just beyond his field of view.

Aaron Rapport is a research fellow with Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and the Miller Center for Public Affairs, at the University of Virginia.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Rapport, Aaron.“Whatever He Decides, Afghanistan Will Hurt Obama.” The Providence Journal, October 9, 2009.

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