Why cutting and running in Afghanistan is good politics for Obama.
- By Michael A. CohenMichael A. Cohen is a regular columnist for Foreign Policy's Election 2012 Channel.
Barack Obama is nothing if not a trailblazing politician — after all, when you’re the first African-American elected to the nation’s highest office, breaking the mold is sort of part of your political DNA. However, with the announcement by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta on Tuesday, Feb. 1, that the Obama administration intends to end combat operations in Afghanistan in mid-2013 he is laying out another unique course — seeking re-election this November as the architect of two drawdowns of U.S. military engagements. This is the kind of thing doesn’t happen too often in American politics.
Rather, U.S. wars tend to end not before, but after elections. In 1952, Harry S. Truman was forced from office, in part, because of his inability to end the slaughter in Korea. It was his successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who finally brought the war to a conclusion after running on a pledge that he would end the conflict. In 1968, an effort to begin disengaging the United States from the war in Vietnam also disengaged Lyndon B. Johnson from his dreams of another term as "your president." In 1972, the final breakthrough at the Paris peace talks came two months after incumbent President Richard Nixon had been overwhelmingly reelected — and after he had dropped copious amounts of bombs on North Vietnam. In 2004, George W. Bush had decidedly little interest in talking about retreat from Iraq.
While not a hard and fast rule — and one that is occasionally out of the hands of a commander-in-chief — the general direction of wartime presidents is to avoid any hint of military vacillation or weakness before facing voters (even when fighting an unpopular war).
Not Barack Obama. He is running for reelection on a platform of bringing the troops home from Iraq, winding down the war in Afghanistan on a now accelerated timetable, and — with the death of Osama bin Laden — as the president who is ending the global war on terror.
Not surprisingly, Obama’s Republican opponents are already taking him to task for the decision. GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney last night blasted what he called Obama’s "naiveté" in signaling U.S. intentions to the enemy. He was joined by the 2008 GOP nominee, Sen. John McCain, who criticized Obama for sending "reassurance to our enemies that the United States is more eager to leave Afghanistan than to succeed." Romney, who briefly suggested last summer that it was time "to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can" from Afghanistan, has now adopted the position that the United States must defeat the Taliban militarily. As he said in South Carolina last month, "These people [the Taliban] have declared war on us. They’ve killed Americans. We go anywhere they are and we kill them." It’s a rather traditional playbook for a Republican — but that doesn’t mean it will necessarily work with voters.
On the surface, it is certainly unusual for a presidential candidate, particularly a Democrat, to hand his opponents a potential military cudgel by which to bash him. But Obama probably understands better than his opponents that such attacks have rather limited political saliency. Voters strongly oppose the war in Afghanistan and have for quite some time. Indeed, 56 percent of Americans would, if they had their way, bring U.S. troops home from Afghanistan immediately. Republicans will undoubtedly attack Obama’s "retreat" from the war, but if the White House is assuming that voters won’t care or that they will view the decision as a positive example of presidential leadership, they’re probably right. It wouldn’t be a U.S. presidential election cycle if Republicans weren’t attacking their opponents as weak on national security — but tradition shouldn’t be confused with smart politics.
And this doesn’t necessarily mean that Obama’s decision was driven by political considerations, either. One of the more underreported elements of Panetta’s comments on Tuesday was his call for an "enduring presence" by the United States in Afghanistan beyond 2014, which was the original NATO deadline for the withdrawal of foreign forces. While the U.S. combat mission might be ending sooner than originally planned, it’s quite possible that the U.S. role in Afghanistan’s politics will continue for some time.
Still, a desire to wind down the war quickly, the potential for kickstarting negotiations with the Taliban, and the recent decision by France to pull the plug on its involvement in Afghanistan in 2013 were likely greater influences on the administration’s decision-making than creating an applause line for the fall presidential campaign.
Nonetheless, it is striking that the White House appears largely unconcerned about the political fallout from this decision. In 2008, candidate Obama ran on a platform of more fully resourcing the war in Afghanistan — a stance that was motivated in part by a desire to shield himself from traditional GOP attacks on Democratic national security weakness. Within mere weeks of taking office — and before even completing a serious review of the mission in Afghanistan — Obama approved sending 17,000 troops to the war. In December 2009, according to Bob Woodward’s account, he announced his intention to surge troops in Afghanistan against what appeared to be his better instincts. It was a decision, again, that appeared motivated, in part, by a desire to avoid charges of ignoring military counsel or not taking seriously enough the threat of jihadist terror. That now seems like a very long time ago — and a very different Democratic politician.
To be sure, if Obama’s State of the Union address — bookended by reflections on the killing of bin Laden — is any indication, Obama has not backed down from an inclination to tout his military bonafides. Indeed, the president’s 2012 website provides a compelling snapshot into his campaign’s mindset about how foreign policy will help their candidate in 2012.
It doesn’t actually mention the words "foreign policy."
Rather the focus is on "national security" — in particular, Obama’s commitment to the nation’s veterans and a strong military as well as his efforts to rid the world of the threat of loose nukes and al Qaeda terrorists.
Put it all together and we have a rather counterintuitive construct for a presidential candidate: tough enough to pursue and kill those that threaten America, but brave enough to take risks for peace and end America’s wars. That such a strategy might work is unusual; that it’s even being tried is fascinating indeed. A president running on a platform for ending and winding down America’s wars — fancy that.