There's something about Barack Obama's new Afghanistan war plan that brings to mind the old lyric famously sung by Groucho Marx: "Hello, I must be going."
On the one hand, the president vowed in his West Point address last night "to bring this war to a successful conclusion...to end this war successfully." On the other hand, he intends "to allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afganistan in July of 2011." On the one hand, he said that "our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan," thus necessitating the dispatch of an additional 30,000 American troops at "the fastest pace possible." On the other hand, sustaining our military presence for more than a few years would be "beyond what we can achieve at a reasonable cost" to our fragile economy.
Good grief. Obama is trying to walk a tightrope that's thinner than dental floss.
He made a decent enough case for choosing the least of the miserable available options, as we begin Year Nine of this war, but we really won't know for awhile whether he chose well. The key time window is a mere year - from the summer of '10 (when all the additional troops are finally in place) to the summer of '11 (when he plans to start withdrawals, because, in his words, "the nation I am most interested in building is our own").
Or, as Groucho sang in Animal Crackers, "I'll stay a week or two/ I'll stay the summer through/ But I am telling you / I must be going."
Given the extent of the mess that Obama has vowed to clean up (a mess caused in large part by the previous administration's well-documented benign neglect), one year is not a very long time in which to rack up stellar performance metrics. But given the fact that Americans are war weary already, one year may well be sufficient time to exhaust their patience.
Listening to the speech, it was clear that Obama feels hemmed in on all fronts - politically, financially, diplomatically. He felt compelled to rebut complaints from the left about the risks of a quagmire ("to abandon this area now...would significantly hamper our ability to keep the pressure on al Qaeda, and create an unacceptable risk of additional attacks on our homeland and our allies"). He also felt compelled to rebut complaints from the right about the pitfalls of setting withdrawal timelines ("It must be clear that Afghans will have to take responsibilty for their security, and that America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan").
The president also said that he's feeling the financial pinch; vital national security interests notwithstanding, he's worried that the cost could imperil the prospects for economic recovery at home. As he put it, "In the wake of an economic crisis, too many of our friends and neighbors are out of work and struggle to pay the bills, and too many Americans are worried about the future facing our children....So we simply cannot afford to ignore the price of these wars." (He vowed to "work closely with Congress" to finance this surge, but offered no details on how it would be financed.)
His room to maneuver is also circumscribed by what he called "the highly polarized and partisan backdrop," the "rancor and cynicism and partisanship that has in recent times poisoned our national discourse" - which was why he sought in the early speech passages to reconnect Afghanistan to 9/11, perhaps hoping to rekindle the bipartisan support that existed in late '01 for taking the fight to that country.
And, perhaps most importantly, Obama's success or failure over the next 18 months is dependent in part on the performance of the Afghani government and the Afghani security forces. He stated that "the days of providing a blank check are over," which sounds pretty unequivocal. On the other hand, he also said that "we expect (emphasis mine) those who are ineffective and corrupt to be held accountable." Should we "expect" that President Karzai will crack down on his brother the drug dealer? What if Karzai fails to meet our "expectations?" Obama appeared to signal that the U.S. will try to work around Karzai if necessary, by supporting regional and local officials "that combat corruption and deliver for the people," but we won't know for some time whether those tactics are effective.
Which brings us to the withdrawal timetable that Republicans are predictably condemning. Actually, this timetable is more aspiration than certainty. Even though Obama cited his intention to "begin" troop pullouts in July '11, he said nothing in the speech about the pace of those pullouts, and, more importantly, nothing about when the pullouts would be completed. In other words, he has set a beginning date - but no end date. And this is because he said he will make those decisions "taking into account conditions on the ground." That's the key phrase - or, to be more precise, the loophole.
Which means that if the Afghani government isn't deemed to be sufficiently stable, and if the security forces aren't deemed to be sufficiently trained in sufficient numbers (by the way, Obama failed to say how he would define insufficiency), it seems clear that our exit will be staged in super slow motion. And if that scenario unfolds, the disenchanted left will complain that the exit isn't happening fast enough; and the disenchanted right (led by Dick Cheney, still suffering from the willful amnesia that bars him from shouldering his hefty share of the blame for this mess) will insist that the exit not happen at all.
All told, it was a grim night at West Point, with nary a flash of the famous Obama choppers. The burden of being commander-in-chief, and committing troops to an unpopular war with no easy options, seemed almost palpable, and there was little in his text to give Americans a lift. Reality right now is a bummer. Groucho, we sure could use you now.