The beginning of the end in Afghanistan: The disappearing act headlining this week’s three ring circus
This week is a three ring circus for the international community. The U.N. The G20. The Clinton Global Initiative … and a host of other side shows for good measure. But with most of the activities featuring little more than the foreign policy equivalent of jazz hands … eye-catching moves amounting to much ado about ...
This week is a three ring circus for the international community. The U.N. The G20. The Clinton Global Initiative … and a host of other side shows for good measure. But with most of the activities featuring little more than the foreign policy equivalent of jazz hands … eye-catching moves amounting to much ado about nothing … it may ultimately be remembered for a reason no one saw coming. Because I think it is pretty likely that in the future we will look at this week as the beginning of the end of America’s presence in Afghanistan and by extension, George W. Bush’s 8-year involvement in the Middle East.
It will take some time to wind things down. I also think history may come up with some better name to describe the Bush war in the context of related wars that took place before it, during his father’s time in office, and will almost certainly take place after it. Perhaps it will be seen as the Second Gulf War in a series of several. Perhaps it will be seen as the Second Oil War. But we can leave the lasting labels to historians.
The reality is that the reaction to the leak of the McChrystal Report is indicative that there are really only two options in Afghanistan open to the administration. One is that they do not provide McChrystal with the additional resources he requests and they further narrow his mission as a justification for their decision and we begin an inevitable process of winding down. The second is that Obama does grant McChrystal’s request but due to the growing doubts about the entire endeavor that the leak of the report has both revealed and exacerbated, that he sets much more specific goals and timelines that in turn pre-sage an ultimate winding down.
The Vietnam analogy is sticking — the quagmire paradigm — and no one near the President wants making that mistake again to be his legacy. The fact that Karzai’s regime is turning out to be just as corrupt and feckless as our partners in South Vietnam were doesn’t help. Further, as we approach the 10 year point at which Russia ended its occupation (which we’ll hit in less than two years), comparisons with yet another futile military effort will become too strong for many to bear. Finally, of course, there is the small fact that we’re playing whack-a-mole with the insurgents, we can’t close the backdoor to Pakistan and if we could, they would go someplace else in the world. In fact, they already are whether to Yemen or Somalia or, apparently, to Colorado.
The seemingly serious threat posed by an Afghan-led terror group associated with al Qaeda that wanted to use explosives to attack U.S. transport hubs underscores two other important points. One is that as we squeeze Afghanistan we may crush some opponents but we do create new ones. Further, it is also clear that we really need to do some new thinking about how one actually does reduce the risk of terror attacks … and accept that effective homeland security enforcement as apparently has taken place this week, may be the best front line on which we can prosecute this effort.
Meanwhile, of course, in New York and later in Pittsburgh, the headlines that were hoped for from the three-ring circus are unlikely to be materializing … and the ones that do emerge are likely to be rather disheartening or, at best, underwhelming.
The United States is likely to frustrate the world by providing it with just what it has been asking for. On climate, on the business of the U.N., at the G20 meeting, America will be the key player but it will not dominate or direct or make the tough calls. It will be a better partner than at any time in the recent past. But the result is a three ring circus without a ringmaster. And paradoxically, the United States will be (is being) fiercely criticized for not being strong enough. We can call the world hypocrites all we want but the reality is that everyone wants the same thing: a leader who will take the heat and always lead in the direction they want to go. Any deviation from this ideal will produce howls … and reading the news this week should produce plenty of corroboration for this observation.
For the Obama administration, the problem is not being an America we can never be. Every girl sooner or later (it always happens around her 29th birthday if the girl’s still single), realize that Prince Charming is a myth and must settle for a real man. But when they do, they then want that man to have some demonstrable qualities and being better than the last jerk you dated only gets you so far. For Obama though, the world is looking for proof that he can actually deliver on one or more of his international priorities: make engagement work with Iran, embrace a new approach to Israel and Palestine that actually produces results, refocus to AfPak and make that work, get our leadership on with regard to climate, be a better neighbor in the hemisphere, jettison tired old artifacts of policies (see: Cuba), help foster real reform and new levels of cooperation and transparency in international markets, and reduce the threat of WMD proliferation.
One by one these issues will play in one or another of the three rings that makes this week’s foreign policy circus so compelling. The Obama team is hoping there will be signs of progress … but that seems unlikely. Taken together, the United States may end up being seen as the absent ringmaster not because we have chosen a different style of leadership but simply because we can’t deliver. Sometimes this will be because circumstances truly are beyond our control and America doesn’t have the influence or options that others ascribe to us. Sometimes it may be because we ourselves promised more than we could deliver. Obama’s credibility is at stake … and given the way most of the issues listed above are trending, regaining it is going to be a challenge that could take a long, long time to address.
As with Afghanistan, here’s the secret: resetting expectations. Identify some goals you can actually achieve. Achieve them. That should have been the approach to domestic policy. Go slower. Build up a head of steam. And it needs to be the approach to international policy. Ringmaster or not, in the three ring circus of international affairs, the last place Obama wants to be is with his predecessor and many of his critics in a clown car full of people the world no longer takes seriously.
DAVID FURST/AFP/Getty Images
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