Most senior U.S. military leaders believe that the United States can’t lose in Afghanistan — provided our political class remains committed to a long, messy and protracted counterinsurgency campaign. But if we do lose, who’s to blame:
- the American people, for prematurely (albeit understandably) tiring of the war;
- the new right-wing isolationists;
- the war itself, because it proved too hard and too difficult to win; or
- President Obama, the Democratic Party, and the left-leaning political class, which includes the legacy media and the leftist net-roots?
There are elements of truth in all of these answers, of course. Indeed, all of these people and groups would bear some responsibility for an American defeat in Afghanistan. However, the most blameworthy and culpable, I believe, are those in choice “d”: President Obama, the Democratic Party, and the left-leaning political class.
I say this because these are the people and groups who are incessantly saying, “No we can’t!” even as the U.S. military respectfully says, “Yes we can!”
The new commanding general of U.S. Central Command, General James N. Mattis, alluded to this problem in a recent speech to the Navy League in Norfolk, Virginia. The General had recently returned from Afghanistan and, according to the Virginia Pilot, concluded that:
the American people should not lose faith now.
“The only way we can lose this war is if we lose it in Paris and Brussels, in Berlin and Washington, if we lose it in the bars in Boston and the living rooms of Illinois. That’s where we would lose it.”
Yet, amongst the internationalist and interventionist Right — of which I am a proud, card-carrying member — there is considerable angst and alarm over what appears to be the growing influence of the new right-wing isolationists: people like GOP Senate candidate Rand Paul and Republican Congressmen Jason Chaffetz (Utah), Walter B. Jones (N.C.), Ron Paul (Tex.) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.).
The concern is that by tapping into a populist backlash against the war, these conservatives might be helping to effect a military defeat for the nation and a political defeat for the Republican Party. Thus warns historian Ron Radosh,
The danger is that those who now believe the Afghanistan war is unwinnable, and that we should scuttle our Afghanistan policy and withdraw, will soon be moving on to demand acceptance of the entire neo-isolationist agenda [which includes protectionism and a nonassertive American foreign policy].
Political analyst John Avlon concurs: “Short-term partisan calculus,” he observes,
will likely cause Republican leaders to encourage an uneasy alliance with the neo-isolationists because they hope to benefit from their aggressive dislike of President Obama in the mid-term elections. But their increased influence on the GOP could prove disastrous for a serious 2012 presidential nominee who will have to campaign as being ‘strong on national security’ and confront an ongoing non-optional war against Islamist terrorism.
I think Radosh and Avalon have it backwards. The right-wing isolationists aren’t driving this debate; the debate (or lack thereof) is sustaining them. Indeed, they’re filling a leadership void that shouldn’t exist — and which, if it didn’t exist, would mean an even smaller and more marginal group of right-wing isolationists.
So worry not about the new conservative anti-warriors. They really aren’t much of a problem. Given strong countervailing leadership, the American people are not inclined to follow them down the primrose path to defeat.
But therein lies the rub: You can’t beat something with nothing, as the political consultants like to say. If the right-wing isolationists are to be beaten back, then advocates of an assertive U.S. foreign policy, and victory in Afghanistan and Iraq, had better start speaking out. The danger, it seems to me, is not that the American people will bug out on Afghanistan; it is that the political class — and the president especially — will fail to lead.
And in fact, the president and the political class have been mostly AWOL re Afghanistan. They have said little and done even less. The war, meanwhile, seems to drift on aimlessly, with no end in sight.
Is anyone surprised, then, to learn that public sentiment has turned against the war? I’m certainly not. The American people are rightly worried that their political leaders have no real strategy for winning in Afghanistan, and who can blame them?
Still, this doesn’t make the American people anti-war, because they’re not. They’re anti-losing! Yet, despite the thinking of General Mattis and other senior military leaders, Radosh accepts the losing narrative of the political class. Thus he writes:
As the nation comes to tire with the loss of American lives in Afghanistan, and with no clear strategy for ‘victory’ and not enough troops to secure success for the McChrystal-Petraeus strategy of counterinsurgency, the possibility exists that a growing antiwar movement might take root, as it did as Vietnam dragged on.
That would not only divide the nation, but potentially lead to continuing Democratic strength among the electorate, and drain the chances for Republican electoral success. For those reasons among others, it is important to raise the issue of foreign policy now, rather than later when it may be too late.
I agree with Radosh about the need to elevate foreign policy in the national dialogue. However, I disagree with his prognosis for Afghanistan. Radosh blithely assumes that Afghanistan will prove to be the unwinnable “quagmire” that the Left and the media habitually foresee. But this is far from given, especially in light of the dramatic turnaround that took place in Iraq.
This turnaround took place precisely because the U.S. military belatedly embraced a counterinsurgency strategy — just as it is now doing in Afghanistan. This strategy, as General Petraeus has explained, is designed to achieve victory, and there is nothing suspect (Radosh puts “victory” in quotes) about it.
Radosh is right that there may be too few troops in Afghanistan. General McChrystal had given President Obama three options. The option that offered the best chance for success, he told the president, involved 80,000 additional troops. But Obama chose the middle option, which provided for just 30,000 additional troops.
If this has turned out to be a problem, then our commanders on the ground have a solemn obligation to speak out and to say so — and our political leaders have an equally solemn obligation to acknowledge and address this problem. But it’s premature, as of now, to say that there are not enough troops in Afghanistan to achieve victory. Maybe, maybe not. In any case, troop levels should be constantly reviewed and assessed and adjusted accordingly.
Radosh also exaggerates the potential for “a growing anti-war movement,” such as took root during the Vietnam War. In truth, the anti-war movement all but disappeared after the draft ended in 1973. But today, everyone who serves in the U.S. military is a volunteer. Thus, our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines expect to deploy and to fight. In fact, for many of them, that is precisely why they signed up for military service.
Moreover, like its pale sister during the Iraq War, the anti-war movement during Vietnam fed off the burgeoning sense that America had no clear strategy to achieve victory. The prevailing view became that we were fighting an “unwinnable war.”
But while that certainly was true for a long time in both Vietnam and Iraq, it is no longer true in Afghanistan. We now have a clear and successful strategy for victory. We now recognize that we are fighting a protracted counterinsurgency campaign.
Americans aren’t defeatists; they’re winners. They like to fight and they like to win, as Patton once reminded us. Our people will endure casualties in pursuit of a just and winning cause. But what rightly infuriates the American people is the sense that our political leaders are using our military to fight and die in a hopeless and unnecessary war.
That’s why political leadership is so important — and it’s especially important today, what with 24/7 cable television news, the internet and smart phones.
It’s especially important today because people nowadays are digitally connected always to the media, which is ubiquitous. Thus, it is absolutely critical that our political leaders constantly articulate, in new and compelling ways, the nature of the threat that we face, why we are at war, and why we must fight.
George W. Bush’s failure to effectively exercise the bully pulpit was a major failure of his presidency; and so, too, with Obama: He rarely talks about the war and, in fact, seems studiously uninterested in Afghanistan (and Iraq.)
This is not surprising. The president’s priorities clearly lie elsewhere: with domestic change and “reform.” Thus, in his Dec. 1, 2009 speech at West Point Obama warned that “our troops commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended: because the nation that I’m most interested in building is our own.”
This, of course, is a false choice based upon bad analysis. Obama’s false choice pits American economic prosperity against relative peace and stability in Afghanistan. But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan account for little more than one percent of America’s Gross Domestic Product.
Indeed, as the Heritage Foundation points out: “The 2010 projected war cost of $95 billion is just 2.6% of the total proposed 2010 $3.8 trillion budget.” And what’s more, Heritage notes, domestic social-welfare spending far exceeds wartime defense expenditures. In fact,
one year of welfare under Obama eclipses [the total] seven-year cost of [the] Iraq War: According to the Congressional Research Service, the [cumulative] cost of the Iraq war through the end of the Bush Administration was around $622 billion. By contrast, annual federal and state means-tested welfare spending will reach $888 billion in FY 2010. Federal welfare spending alone will equal $697 billion in that year.
Obama’s bad analysis involves warning against an “open-ended” troop commitment in Afghanistan. Obama thinks that if we don’t set an artificial deadline for withdrawal from Afghanistan, then the Afghan people will grow dependent upon us and refuse to make the hard choices necessary to sustain themselves independent of American military action.
The truth, though, is quite the opposite: In the absence of a clear and unshakable American commitment to do whatever it takes to win, the Afghan people are worried that we’ll bug out on them and abandon them at their maximum hour of need. Consequently, they have been reluctant to fully embrace us and to trust us. This is a real problem and obstacle because in a counterinsurgency campaign, the people are the center of gravity; they are the prize to be won.
For all of these reasons, I’m not much worried about the new right-wing isolationists. They’ll pipe down and remain marginal when the American people start seeing tangible signs of military progress in Afghanistan.
What I am very worried about, however, is the lack of political leadership in Washington. The political class, after all, has a long and sordid history of losing its nerve when the going gets tough. Indeed, that’s been their modus operandi ever since the Vietnam War. And when you combine that with a president who’d rather not be commander-in-chief, you have the distinct possibility that America will needlessly lose in Afghanistan.
But if that happens, don’t blame the American people; don’t blame the war; and don’t blame the right-wing isolationists. Blame the political class; blame the Democratic Party; blame the anti-war Left — and blame especially the president whom they bequeathed us: Because he will be the one who says, “No we can’t!”, even as the U.S. military says, “Yes we can!”
You can follow John Guardiano on Twitter: @JohnRGuardiano