Is national security taking a back seat to politics in Barack Obama’s decision to start the withdrawal in Afghanistan?
Jennifer Rubin, a token conservative columnist for the Washington Post, asked that question earlier today over at the Right Turn, a blog about politics. The question, of course, was meant as a jibe. To get intellectual help, if that’s the word, she quoted an opinion piece by Max Boot.
But their argument, with national security presumably in the front seat, has hit a wall.
The context: on Sunday, The New York Times had published excerpts from David Sanger’s forthcoming book. The key passage: “by early 2011, Mr. Obama had seen enough. He told his staff to arrange a speedy, orderly exist from Afghanistan.” The Times then quoted an unnamed Obama adviser, “The military was ‘all in,’ as they say, and Obama wasn’t.”
“This is breathtaking,” Boot wrote in reaction,
This confirms the worst suspicions of Obama’s critics — namely that he was never committed to victory in Afghanistan and was instead committed to bringing troops home early so as to position himself advantageously for his own reelection. These revelations raise serious questions in my mind about the morality of the entire surge — about the morality of risking troops’ lives and limbs for a goal that is not worthy of their sacrifice.
When I first read this I cringed. This deserves an angry response, I thought. But the arguments are just not serious enough to get angry. So let’s rather employ the Socratic method and ask four simple questions.
One on politics, just as a reminder: is strategy taking a back seat to politics? Isn’t that what we call democracy? But even in non-democracies that is the case, and classic military thought and strategic theory says it should be that way. You don’t think so? Read this book. Why would it be superior to defer decisions on extraordinarily costly long-term strategy to decision-makers who are not democratically elected (read: generals and admirals)?
That relates to a second question, on judgment. Boot and Rubin take issue with the president not following the advice of his generals to continue sending American soldiers into harm’s way to help bring about change in Afghanistan through counterinsurgency. So let’s focus on military judgment for a moment: being “all in” comes with a problem, the problem of sunk costs. The higher the costs and the longer it takes, the higher the likelihood that war, in Peter Paret’s words, may change “from a tool of policy to a force that imposes — or seeks to impose — its own emotional demands.” Why should those who paid the most terrible emotional price be in a better position to come to a sober judgment?
And that, in turn, leads to my third question, about the morality of risking troops’ lives and limbs for a goal that is not worthy of their sacrifice, in Boot’s words. Please, tell me, Why is it morally superior to send troops to get killed or injured for, say, three or four more years and then come to the same conclusion? But the strategy will work, you may say, just give it more time. Ok, then, what is the source of such certainty? Morality? Sunk costs? Bloody-mindedness?
So the last question, and it’s quite simple. Obama was “never committed to victory in Afghanistan,” we hear. What would have to happen in Afghanistan for you to call it victory? And what would have to happen for us to change our dear assumptions? Could you please spell that out, after a decade of war?
Many American hawks are staunch supporters of Israel, including Rubin and Boot. So perhaps they should take Israel’s experience with political violence a little more seriously. Victory, you must understand, is a concept that doesn’t really fly in the Holy Land. You don’t think so? Read this article.
Wars, let’s be clear, are fought not to be won, but to gain a political objective beyond war.