Thursday, October 22, 2009

Holding Karzai’s feet to the fire: Obama’s no-decision decision

Maybe it’s a consequence of his experience with life and politics in Chicago, or the result of trials in the free-fire zone of his past nine-plus months as president, but Barack Obama has made a habit of pushing his way out of corners his opponents were certain they had him in. The president has done it again on matters concerning Afghanistan.

Many in Congress and around the country thought he could and should be gently but firmly pressured into a rubber-stamp decision to give Gen. Stanley McChrystal the additional 40,000 troops the general wants to send to the Afghan War effort. On Wednesday night, former vice president Dick Cheney offered his two bellicose cents to the debate, saying that President Obama was “dithering” on the Afghan decision, to the detriment of U.S. forces there.

The president has deftly turned the tables and put them right where they belong. In a stunning throwdown, the Obama administration established an implicit linkage between any additional troops for Afghanistan to the successful completion of a runoff presidential election, pitting Afghan President Hamid Karzai against challenger and former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah — a new vote meant to correct the blatant fraud, corruption and intimidation that occurred with the previous presidential vote in August.

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Nobody saw that coming. So much of the debate on Capitol Hill has consisted of shrill, strident entreaties to Obama to fulfill McChrystal’s wishes — to defer to the military man on the basis of experience.

But President Obama, a master of the political rope-a-dope, has reversed the axis of responsibility for the future of Afghanistan, placing the issue squarely on the shoulders of the leaders of Afghanistan — where the burden of proof should have been all along.

This holds Karzai’s feet firmly to the fire, and it also places the American military presence in Afghanistan in a somewhat more conditional context. It’s almost certain Obama won’t order an immediate full-scale withdrawal — a prospect that would create as many problems in the short term as it would solve.

But the president has been carefully weighing his options, including but not limited to a more gradual withdrawal of forces; a more inventive mix of military, technological and diplomatic assets; and a greater role by Afghanistan’s police and military —the people with the most skin in the game.

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The calls for more immediate military action from those in Congress and the right-wing media combine speak volumes about what we’re accustomed to from our leaders. Over the past eight years, we’ve seen so much foreign policy waged with swagger and smart-bomb shooting from the hip, we’ve forgotten what intelligent deliberation looks like.

Now we know. What to many people looks like a no-decision decision the president is making is really a no-decision-yet decision. But to millions of others, it's already clear President Obama has dared to engage in a thoughtful (and no doubt agonizing) consideration of whether to step up involvement in a war that more and more of the American people oppose — dared to think before acting, to replace rashness with rationale.

Been a long time since we had that in the White House.
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Image credits: Obama: Still from White House video. Obama and McChrystal: Pete Souza, The White House. Karzai: Harald Dettenborn.

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