Which is the greater folly: To fancy that war offers an easy solution to vexing problems, or, knowing otherwise, to opt for war anyway?
In the wake of 9/11, American statecraft emphasized the first approach: President George W. Bush embarked on a “global war” to eliminate violent jihadism. President Obama now seems intent on pursuing the second approach: Through military escalation in Afghanistan, he seeks to “finish the job” that Bush began there, then all but abandoned.
Through war, Bush set out to transform the greater Middle East. Despite immense expenditures of blood and treasure, that effort failed. In choosing Obama rather than John McCain to succeed Bush, the American people acknowledged that failure as definitive. Obama’s election was to mark a new beginning, an opportunity to “reset” America’s approach to the world.
The president’s chosen course of action for Afghanistan suggests he may well squander that opportunity. Rather than renouncing Bush’s legacy, Obama apparently aims to salvage something of value. In Afghanistan, he will expend yet more blood and more treasure hoping to attenuate or at least paper over the wreckage left over from the Bush era.
However improbable, Obama thereby finds himself following in the footsteps of Richard Nixon. Running for president in 1968, Nixon promised to end the Vietnam War. Once elected, he balked at doing so. Obsessed with projecting an image of toughness and resolve -- U.S. credibility was supposedly on the line -- Nixon chose to extend and even to expand that war. Apart from driving up the costs that Americans were called on to pay, this accomplished nothing.
If knowing when to cut your losses qualifies as a hallmark of statesmanship, Nixon flunked. Vietnam proved irredeemable.
Obama’s prospects of redeeming Afghanistan appear hardly more promising. Achieving even a semblance of success, however modestly defined, will require an Afghan government that gets its act together, larger and more competent Afghan security forces, thousands of additional reinforcements from allies already heading toward the exits, patience from economically distressed Americans as the administration shovels hundreds of billions of dollars toward Central Asia, and even greater patience from U.S. troops shouldering the burdens of seemingly perpetual war. Above all, success will require convincing Afghans that the tens of thousands of heavily armed strangers in their midst represent Western beneficence rather than foreign occupation.
The president seems to appreciate the odds. The reluctance with which he contemplates the transformation of Afghanistan into “Obama’s war” is palpable. Gone are the days of White House gunslingers barking “Bring ‘em on” and of officials in tailored suits and bright ties vowing to do whatever it takes. The president has made clear his interest in “offramps” and “exit strategies.”
So if the most powerful man in the world wants out, why doesn’t he simply get out? For someone who vows to change the way Washington works, Afghanistan seemingly offers a made-to-order opportunity to make good on that promise. Why is Obama muffing the chance?
What Afghanistan tells us is that rather than changing Washington, Obama has become its captive. The president has succumbed to the twin illusions that have taken the political class by storm in recent months. The first illusion, reflecting a self-serving interpretation of the origins of 9/11, is that events in Afghanistan are crucial to the safety and well-being of the American people. The second illusion, the product of a self-serving interpretation of the Iraq War, is that the U.S. possesses the wisdom and wherewithal to guide Afghanistan out of darkness and into the light.
According to the first illusion, 9/11 occurred because Americans ignored Afghanistan. By implication, fixing the place is essential to preventing the recurrence of terrorist attacks on the U.S. In Washington, the appeal of this explanation is twofold. It distracts attention from the manifest incompetence of the government agencies that failed on 9/11, while also making it unnecessary to consider how U.S. policy toward the Middle East during the several preceding decades contributed to the emergence of violent anti-Western jihadism.
According to the second illusion, the war in Iraq is ending in a great American victory. Forget the fact that the arguments advanced to justify the invasion of March 2003 have all turned out to be bogus: no Iraqi weapons of mass destruction found; no substantive links between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda established; no tide of democratic change triggered across the Islamic world. Ignore the persistence of daily violence in Iraq even today.
The “surge” engineered by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus in Iraq enables proponents of that war to change the subject and to argue that the counterinsurgency techniques employed in Iraq can produce similar results in Afghanistan -- disregarding the fact that the two places bear about as much resemblance to one another as North Dakota does to Southern California.
So the war launched as a prequel to Iraq now becomes its sequel, with little of substance learned in the interim. To double down in Afghanistan is to ignore the unmistakable lesson of Bush’s thoroughly discredited “global war on terror": Sending U.S. troops to fight interminable wars in distant countries does more to inflame than to extinguish the resentments giving rise to violent anti-Western jihadism.
There’s always a temptation when heading in the wrong direction on the wrong highway to press on a bit further. Perhaps down the road a piece some shortcut will appear: Grandma’s house this way.
Yet as any navigationally challenged father who has ever taken his family on a road trip will tell you, to give in to that temptation is to err. When lost, take the first offramp that presents itself and turn around. That Obama -- by all accounts a thoughtful and conscientious father -- seems unable to grasp this basic rule is disturbing.
Under the guise of cleaning up Bush’s mess, Obama has chosen to continue Bush’s policies. No doubt pulling the plug on an ill-advised enterprise involves risk and uncertainty. It also entails acknowledging mistakes. It requires courage. Yet without these things, talk of change will remain so much hot air.
Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University.