As his address at West Point on Tuesday night suggests, Barack Obama's presidency is turning out to be historic in more than the obvious way.
Obama and Harry Truman are the only presidents to take office with the country engaged in two wars. (Though history lumps them together as World War II, the conflicts with Germany in Europe and with Japan in the Pacific were -- in military terms -- distinct struggles.) And even if he wins a second term, Obama also is very likely to be the first chief executive since Abraham Lincoln called on to function as a wartime commander in chief for the entirety of his presidency.
War and economic crisis are certain to define Obama's presidency, despite his hopes for a dramatic expansion of opportunity through domestic reforms, such as universal access to affordable healthcare. Tuesday's address thus will long stand as a milestone, and a reminder that history dishes out its challenges without respect to the agendas of politicians or parties. By meeting Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's request for tens of thousands of additional troops to fight the war in Afghanistan, the president has done two things: He has reaffirmed the sincerity of his campaign declaration that the Afghan war is one of necessity while that in Iraq is one of choice. Equally important, he has accepted his advisors' belief that the hard-won lessons of the Iraqi conflict are transferable to Afghanistan.
As we now know, the war in Iraq turned around when three forces conjoined under Army Gen. David H. Petraeus' counterinsurgency strategy:
1) Troop levels surged so that territory cleared of insurgents could be held while Iraqi civil institutions began to take root;
2) The so-called Anbar awakening managed to persuade increasing numbers of Sunni Iraqis to abandon Al Qaeda-style jihadism for nationalism;
3) Semi-secret technologies and tactics were used to kill insurgent leaders while limiting civilian casualties.
Even if some combination or variant of these tactics works in Afghanistan, it will be many months -- probably years -- before the results are apparent. In the meantime, Obama will face intense criticism, not only from partisan antagonists such as former Vice President Dick Cheney, who already is denouncing the president as weak, but also from within his own party. When high-ranking Democratic congressmen such as David Obey, John Murtha and Charles Rangel announce they're going to demand an income surtax to fund the war, it's a legislative shot across the president's bow, an implicit demand that he choose between his domestic agenda and what he perceives as his duty to national security.
However the costs are borne, moreover, no one should fool themselves about the real end game here. The most the United States can hope to achieve in Afghanistan is to pacify the countryside and empower the military and police sufficiently so that the Taliban doesn't reopen the country to internationally minded jihadis like Al Qaeda. The United States will not remake Afghan society nor create a recognizable democracy there, nor will we emancipate the country's wretchedly treated women. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, it was a desperately poor, mainly illiterate, deeply traditional, xenophobic and backward place. It still is. The Soviets' occupation added an overlay of brutality and lawlessness, while the Islamic fighters who flocked to resist them introduced a virulently intolerant version of Islam previously unknown there. On any given day, it's a coin toss as to whether the most dangerous failed state in the world is Somalia or Afghanistan.
A great deal has been made about the time that has elapsed between McChrystal's request for additional troops and Obama's decision to order their deployment. The word "dithering" has been used more than once, and when the president recently made a nighttime journey to Dover Air Force Base to see and salute the bodies of our casualties being unloaded there, there was a reflexive impulse to treat the occasion as a campaign-style photo op.
Obama's decision to announce this new "surge" before a military academy audience of future Army officers and their instructors suggests something different. Like the unexpected visit to Dover, the West Point address was an unspoken acknowledgment that some Americans will die and some American families will grieve so that the rest of us can be safe. Even necessary wars exact almost unbearable costs. Like Lincoln, Obama is a president who appears to feel this reality personally, which is why he repeatedly has told his military audiences that he never will casually put them in harm's way, nor deny them the resources required to execute their duties as safely as possible. Tuesday's speech affirmed that laudable resolve.
The Afghan conflict is a war of necessity, and the troops sent to prosecute it now appear to have the means required to bring it to a successful conclusion. And though Obama's strategy will not transform Afghanistan, it may someday make that country safe enough to leave.
The notion that anything more can be achieved in that backward and tragic place is folly, as is the wishful fantasy that American casualties will do anything but climb in the months ahead. Too little has changed in Afghanistan in the century since Britain was forced to police what was then India's northwest frontier and Rudyard Kipling bitterly foresaw the fate of the men sent to do that work:
When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An' go to your Gawd like a soldier.