Wednesday, November 25, 2009

It's Tough to Be President

Reading over comments left by readers at the NY Times, I get the impression that Obama is going to disappoint everybody over Afghanistan. The liberals all say things like:
Please remove our troops from Afghanistan. This is an absolute no-win tangle that will never resolve itself. Bring our money, efforts and intentions back home and let's rebuild this country. We have jobless people wandering around broken cities with falling bridges. Put us to work to help the US for a change. Afghanistan needs to repair itself, or fail on its own. Nothing we can do will save them. This is their job.
Whereas conservatives think the whole thing is a sham and are mad that he is talking about eventually getting our troops out:
an exit strategy-- that means cut and run, right?
It seems that the word "victory" is a particular bone of contention. Conservatives are mad in advance that Obama won't use it, but people who follow the military say that Petraeus and McCrystal never use the word, for reasons having to do with counter insurgency doctrine or something -- but then maybe they don't use the word because the White House has told them not to. Who knows?

I feel sad. Not angry, because we all knew that given everything Obama has said and done, this is what would happen. Just sad that we are who we are and the world is what it is. Americans, like many people, are easily seduced by violence, angered by opposition, determined to see ourselves as right and anyone who shoots at us as wrong. We like courage and resolution, and we despise weakness. We want to stand by our friends and humble our enemies.

There is an old saying that nations get the leaders they deserve. Because Americans are who we are, we could never elect a real lover of peace as President. We set a high standard of bellicosity for anyone who would be our commander-in-chief. So we get leaders who are not reluctant to start wars and determined to win them once they have begun. We tend to think of Vietnam as a "tragedy" because we understand how we were trapped into acting as we did. Once Vietnam was divided, we had to stand by our friends and fight our enemies. There was no exit that would not humiliate us.

General Longstreet, watching Pickett lead his doomed men up Cemetery Ridge, observed to noone in particular that the charge had already been repulsed before it had even begun, but it "must continue until the last measure of honor is filled." That is the way of warriors. They do not quit, even when the mission is stupid or doomed, until honor has been served. How long that will take us in Afghanistan, I can't say. But I am sure it will be years, years marked by thousands of deaths and tens of billions squandered. Because that is the way we are.


Unknown said...

". . . we are who we are and the world is what it is. Americans, like many people, are easily seduced by violence, angered by opposition, determined to see ourselves as right and anyone who shoots at us as wrong."

Perhaps, but aren't you engaging in your own version of "determined to see ourselves as right" by prejudicing the issue in this way--that is, by presuming that the reasons for staying in Afghanistan must be pathological in the way you depict? And you do depict them as pathological, even as you label them as all too human. Your words don't admit the possibility of creditable, non-bellicose reasons for staying in Afghanistan.

To be fair to the president, he never pretended to be a lover of peace.

John said...

Indeed, Obama explicitly used his desire to fight in Afghanistan as proof that he was not a peacenik.

As for me, I honestly cannot see what anyone thinks we can achieve by fighting on in Afghanistan. I just don't get it. "Victory" strikes me as an absurd notion, since the we are never going to conquer and occupy the whole country. We could, presumably, drive the Taliban and their friends upon into the hills and achieve a bit more peace in the towns, but as soon as we leave they will come back down. Will the Afghan government be in a better position to fight them in five years than they are now? Why?

Unknown said...

I share your doubts, and am ambivalent about what we should do in Afghanistan. I'm extremely glad the decision was not mine to make. But I do think there are creditable, non-bellicose arguments that can be made for staying. I'm not sure those arguments are right; but they do exist, and I'm not sure the counterarguments are right, either.