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Obama's Afghanistan speech

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My first thought watching Obama's speech last night was to wonder whether he'd borrowed Bush's speechwriter for the evening. But the mirrored rhetoric is to be expected, I guess. This is a policy that Bush could have announced, too. It stands to reason that the two men would talk of it in similar terms.

None of that is to suggest it's the wrong policy. Or, for that matter, the right one. Attempting to predict the success of approaches to war is much harder than, say, assessing health-care policies. With health care, you can judge what's proposed against real-life models, and ask whether it's closer to the models that seem to work (as the exchange is to the large group market), or farther (as with John McCain's expansion of the individual market). There really is no strong template for what we're trying to do in Afghanistan. It's closer to the surge than the initial phase of the Iraq War, but it's also closer to staying in Afghanistan long after the mission has gone sour than it is to following the lessons of past empires and getting out.

You're left analyzing the motivations of the players. Do I trust the Obama administration, and the Obama administration's process, more than I did the Bush administration? I do. But do I trust them and their process in more absolute terms? I don't.

For all the effort the administration has put into emphasizing the dissent, and thus the openness to critical arguments, within the White House, it's a lot harder to say no to the military, and no to the mission in Afghanistan, and no to the Afghans your advisers tell you will die or be oppressed, and no to the possibility of turning around this war, and no to all of your rhetoric about "the good war," than it is to say yes. That's particularly when you're not paying for it, or making the initial commitment, both of which tend to sharpen the mind on these matters, not to mention create a heavier lift with Congress.

But unlike the effort required to find funding and convince the country that it needs to begin a war, expanding an existing conflict is probably the easiest of your options. Your military guys, after all, have every reason to tell you that with more resources, they can do this job. And if they tell you that, and sound convincing, you have every reason to let them take a shot at it. The deck on this decision was always stacked, and something very much like this approach was the obvious outcome of the process starting months ago.

That's not to say Obama hasn't agonized over this policy, and it's not to say that it's the wrong policy. It's to say, really, that it's hard to say. A lot of the normal tools pundits use for second-guessing the president aren't useful here.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Julie Jacobson.

By Ezra Klein  |  December 2, 2009; 8:47 AM ET
Categories:  Afghanistan  
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Next: Afghanistan and the Iraq surge

Comments

"With health care, you can judge what's proposed against real-life models"

So could you do that with health care then, and when it comes to cost controls, have a more reasonably skeptical view on IMAC, bundled payments that require integration across providers, etc. given that the real-life models suggest none of that is possible without some significant changes on societal views on health care?

Posted by: wisewon | December 2, 2009 9:17 AM | Report abuse

seems to me last fall nov. we voted and said NO MORE BUSH!

O is a loser and will find this out in 2013
when we vote these loser back out of office
including the senate and congress.

i have been a dem all my life! and am ashamed of the dem party all the waste and coruption and profit taking from special interest.

i dont know who i will vote for but i will vote these loser out of office.

we ask for a president of the people for the people to return our Goverment to us.

O is a liar war monger and theif! and the senate and congress are no longer fit to run this country only thing i can say is come election time pack your bags GOOD BYE!

dale

Posted by: mechman110 | December 2, 2009 9:33 AM | Report abuse

Obama campaigned on this issue to increase troops in Afghanistan and to finish the job there. Thus, this should not be a surprise to anyone.

Posted by: Lomillialor | December 2, 2009 9:47 AM | Report abuse

"There really is no strong template for what we're trying to do in Afghanistan. It's closer to the surge than the initial phase of the Iraq War, but it's also closer to staying in Afghanistan long after the mission has gone sour than it is to following the lessons of past empires and getting out."

You are leaving out one analogy: precipitous withdrawal of support leading to total systemic collapse and the eventual creation of a Pakistani-created Islamic fundamentalist regime that comes back to destroy its creators and their American patrons. But of course it's completely silly to think that could happen in AFGHANISTAN of all places...

Posted by: NS12345 | December 2, 2009 9:52 AM | Report abuse

there is no point of absolute certainty for any decision.

adding to the most human exasperation and disappointment , is that the most meticulous planning and execution often has absolutely nothing to do with the randomness of outcomes. so much seems to depend on luck favoring the circumstances. or something.
there was no deception here from president obama.
he spoke lengthily about afghanistan during the campaign. that was the part that supporters didnt want to hear....
president obama and his wife have seen the suffering of soldiers and their families.
he knows that the consequences of this decision will hang on his conscience, as well.
he knows that christmas morning, there will be a terrible report, as he unwraps presents.
he can have no illusions about the grim unpopularity of this among his supporters. he knows history well enough to know that his legacy can be destroyed by a long, tragic war.
i dont believe that he would make this decision if he didnt feel in his mind and heart, that it was the right one.
sending more troops there, especially before christmas, makes my heart very heavy, especially against the backdrop of the suffering here.
i trust in his leadership. i think he is deliberate and courageous and assumes responsibility in very personal terms.
i pray very much for him. i hope his objectives will succeed, for everyone's sake.
and i pray for all of the young people who will be leaving soon for afghanistan, their families and children ....and for the people in afghanistan, who already have been through so much unimaginable turmoil and suffering.


Posted by: jkaren | December 2, 2009 10:04 AM | Report abuse

The public changed its opinion about AfPak. They would mostly be okay with a small footprint strategy. Why is it unreasonable to expect Obama to change his mind too?

The tools pundits need to evaluate this strategy are things they learned in kindergarten: violence begets violence, don't touch other people's stuff, not everyone is going to like you, etc.

And NS2135 no one is arguing for a precipitous withdrawal. But the escalation makes it even harder to eventually withdraw. It's the wrong move.

And Ezra the large group market hasn't controlled costs either.

Posted by: bmull | December 2, 2009 11:40 AM | Report abuse

OK, it's not a surprise to anyone. I still think he's full of it. If you carefully parse Ezra's post, what he's saying is that Obama is making an evidence-free gamble with other people's money and lives, but he's far too polite (or self-interested, given his well-known closeness to the administration) to put it that way. It's "hard to say?" Have we gotten to the point that liberals wave away opposition to open-ended occupation by urging us all to trust the guy in charge "because after all, he is our president...." That's mindless, lazy authoritarian thinking that we'd mock mercilessly if the other side employed it, but Ezra is A-OK with it. Wevs.

Posted by: redscott | December 2, 2009 11:44 AM | Report abuse

"And NS2135 no one is arguing for a precipitous withdrawal."

Obama is not making some vague Bush promise of "leaving eventually." He's offering a hard deadline and a strategy underlying that withdrawal. So it seems to me that AT LEAST a significant part of the left wants something more precipitous. We're supposed to "Get Out Now," and I think that would just be a bad idea.

I also kind of have to recoil at this: "are things they learned in kindergarten: violence begets violence, don't touch other people's stuff, not everyone is going to like you, etc."

Kindergarten logic doesn't exactly help when you're dealing with chaos following social collapse. Violence is going to happen no matter what here. But violence supporting stability and eventual peace is very different from violence just contributing to chaos.

Posted by: NS12345 | December 2, 2009 12:57 PM | Report abuse

Donald Rumsfeld said no to his generals and invaded Iraq with low troop levels. Many on the left were critical of that decision at the time, but here's Ezra now praising Rumsfeld's wisdom. Funny world sometimes.

Posted by: tomtildrum | December 2, 2009 2:23 PM | Report abuse

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