Obama's Political 'Balancing Act'

Obama's Political 'Balancing Act'

By David Warren - October 7, 2009

The American and British top commanders have recently grumbled, or more than grumbled, about indifferent political responses to their requests for more feet and equipment on the ground in Afghanistan.

U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal and U.K. Lt.-Gen. Jim Dutton, respectively commander and deputy of the NATO force, made very clear that al-Qaeda and the Taliban cannot be pursued effectively with missile strikes. Both seem to have been called on the carpet for speaking this truth too publicly.

Yesterday, it appeared that the U.S. defence secretary, Robert Gates -- a holdover from the Bush administration, reappointed to assure U.S. allies and enemies of some continuity in commitments abroad -- was beginning to go public with his own frustrations. He cleverly ramped the pressure on Obama, while directing his criticism at the previous administration: saying that the Taliban had been able to regroup because Bush and company had not sent enough troops.

Hear, hear!

But, as I fear the shrewd Gates must privately understand, neither President Obama nor Prime Minister Brown can quite hear. Both are acting like Bambis caught in the headlamps of history. Both have acknowledged the necessity of taking the battle to the Taliban and al-Qaeda; both speak of the need for something resembling victory in the conflict; neither has an idea what victory might look like; and both are flanked by growing political forces that would like to see them out of Afghanistan altogether.

Gordon Brown will be gone soon, and will probably continue dribbling to the eve of the British election. The world is looking forward, however, to more than three more years of what America's tea-drinkers call "Obamanation," and there is only so far Gates's boss can rag the ball, till it is no longer his to dribble, and he's sending the helicopters into Saigon, I mean Kabul, to retrieve his diplomatic mission. For the Taliban have proved a formidably wilful enemy, and they gain encouragement and additional backing with every indication that the U.S. is, as they said all along, a "paper tiger."

Both Brown and Obama are performing political "balancing acts," self-complicated by their respective propensities to say too much and do too little. Canada's Stephen Harper might be -- too late in the day, of course -- an example to both of them. Harper has the gift of never missing an opportunity to shut up. And the less he says, the less attention is drawn to Canada's own quandary: what to do in a fight when it looks like your big brothers might cut and run.

President Bush also talked too much; it is a foible shared by most of our politicians. But he also did what he needed to do, in due course, and was willing to spend his political capital well into debt for what he could see was in the American interest. And that interest -- shared by the whole western world -- is indeed to prevail in Afghanistan. More broadly, it is to show the world's Islamists that the best they can get out of challenging the west is a quick martyrdom.

Seemingly unrelated: reports of meetings not only of Arabs, Russians, and Chinese, but of French and Japanese to find a replacement world currency for the U.S. dollar. (OK: the leading report of this is by Robert Fisk in the London Independent, which is the journalistic equivalent of saying, "April Fool!" But there are plenty of garbled reports from other sources.)

This is among so many indications the world is preparing for a "post-American" future, in which, as Obama himself promised at the United Nations, his country would no longer be a superpower. Everything else he is doing, at home and abroad, seems designed to contribute to the same result: the political and economic diminution of the United States.

It is against this background that the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan becomes, in effect, the test of remaining U.S. commitment to anything under the current administration. Undermanned and underequipped allied forces can only sustain more casualties, especially at a time when long-planned offensives in places like Helmand province are finally proceeding. And despite their own growing problems of infrastructural shrinkage, the mainstream media remain more than willing to turn troop casualties in Afghanistan into nightmares for the politicians who sent them.

Perhaps the message may eventually get through to Barack Obama himself, that he is beginning to look like "Jimmy Carter, squared." Something in the nature of a decisive stroke in foreign policy might even be to his political advantage. He could only derive political benefit from an act that would permanently shear off his radical leftwing support. (Yes, I am being cynical here, but I am writing about very cynical calculations.)

The west cannot afford defeat in Afghanistan. The only way forward is through the enemy, and the more decisive the thrust, the more such unreliable regional allies as Pakistan will cooperate.

© Ottawa Citizen

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