Stephen M. Walt

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t

What should we make of the news that President Obama is still not happy with the proposed strategy for Afghanistan, and that his doubts are being reinforced by a skeptical report from retired general Karl Eikenberry, who is now the U.S. ambassador in Kabul? First, I think it’s a sign that deep down, Obama knows ...

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
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U.S. President Barack Obama leaves the Diplomatic Reception Room after making a statement to the press on the economy at the White House November 12, 2009 in Washington, DC. Photo by Olivier Douliery /ABACAUSA.COM (Pictured: Barack Obama)

What should we make of the news that President Obama is still not happy with the proposed strategy for Afghanistan, and that his doubts are being reinforced by a skeptical report from retired general Karl Eikenberry, who is now the U.S. ambassador in Kabul?

First, I think it's a sign that deep down, Obama knows he has no good options. He’s figured out that the stakes aren’t as great as he may have once thought, that the commitment is potentially endless, that we have no local partner for the kind of centralized, "state-building" approach that remains at the heart of U.S. strategy, and that going all in will commit him to a war we won't win. No wonder he keeps looking for an alternative.

What should we make of the news that President Obama is still not happy with the proposed strategy for Afghanistan, and that his doubts are being reinforced by a skeptical report from retired general Karl Eikenberry, who is now the U.S. ambassador in Kabul?

First, I think it’s a sign that deep down, Obama knows he has no good options. He’s figured out that the stakes aren’t as great as he may have once thought, that the commitment is potentially endless, that we have no local partner for the kind of centralized, “state-building” approach that remains at the heart of U.S. strategy, and that going all in will commit him to a war we won’t win. No wonder he keeps looking for an alternative.

Second, he’s painted himself into a corner with his earlier tough talk, and he’s worried that the GOP and FoxNews and various armchair generals will all accuse him of appeasement if he gives McChrystal anything less than what the general asked for, or if he dares to put a time limit on a continued U.S. effort. So all those recent news stories stressing how seriously Obama is taking this and how much he’s grilling his advisors are designed to convince us that he’s looked really, really hard at all the options. The goal is to build support for whatever decision he ultimately makes, even if everyone secretly knows it’s not likely to work.

Third, this is an issue where Obama’s instinct for compromise and his natural gift for reconciling conflicting positions is not serving him well. Given the range of problems that the United States is facing at home and abroad, bold action is badly needed. Not the sort of unthinking, shoot-from-the-hip fantasies that drove Bush’s foreign policy during his first term, but rather a ruthless, hardnosed set of choices about priorities. Obama did a little bit of that during his first couple of months — mostly about the economy — but well-entrenched interests and conventional wisdom began to take over.  

With respect to Afghanistan: it is either a worth a prolonged and costly investment of lives and money or it isn’t. Either we go all in — which in my view is still a very bad idea — or we should get out. Trying to split the difference on this issue is not leadership; in fact, it is a recipe for failure.

Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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