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Our distracted commander in chief

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Charles Krauthammer
September 3, 2010
— Many have charged that President Obama’s decision to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan 10 months from now is hampering our war effort. But now it’s official.

In a stunning statement last week, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway admitted that the July 2011 date is “probably giving our enemy sustenance.” A remarkably bold charge for an active military officer. It stops just short of suggesting aiding and abetting the enemy.


Yet the observation is obvious: It is surely harder to prevail in a war that hinges on the allegiance of the locals when they hear the U.S. president talk of beginning a withdrawal that will ultimately leave them to the mercies of the Taliban.


How did Obama come to this decision?


“Our Afghan policy was focused as much as anything on domestic politics,” an Obama adviser at the time told The New York Times’ Peter Baker. “He would not risk losing the moderate to centrist Democrats in the middle of health insurance reform, and he viewed that legislation as the make-or-break legislation for his administration.”


If this is true, then Obama’s military leadership can only be called scandalous. During the past week, 22 Americans were killed over a four-day period in Afghanistan. This is not a place about which decisions should be made in order to placate congressmen, pass health care and thereby maintain a president’s political standing. This is a place about which a president should make decisions to best succeed in the military mission he himself has set out.


But Obama sees his wartime duties as a threat to his domestic agenda. These wars are a distraction, unwanted interference with his true vocation—transforming America.


Such an impression could only have been reinforced when, given the opportunity in his Oval Office address this week to dispel the widespread perception in Afghanistan that America is leaving, Obama doubled down on his ambivalence.


After giving a nod to the pace of troop reductions being conditions-based, he declared with his characteristic “but make no mistake” that “this transition will begin—because open-ended war serves neither our interests nor the Afghan people’s.”

These are the words of a man who wants out. Most emphatically on Iraq, where from the beginning Obama has made clear that his objective is simply ending combat operations by an arbitrary deadline—despite the fact that a new government has not been formed and all our hard-won success hangs in the balance—in order to address the more paramount concern: keeping a campaign promise. Time to “turn the page” and turn America elsewhere.


At first you’d think that turning is to Afghanistan. But Obama added nothing to his previously stated Afghan policy while emphatically reiterating July 2011 as the beginning of the end, or more diplomatically, of the “transition.”


Well then, at least you’d then expect some vision of his larger foreign policy. After all, this was his first Oval Office address on the subject. What is the meaning, if any, of the Iraq and Afghan wars? And what of the clouds that are forming beyond those theaters: the drone-war escalation in Pakistan, the rise of al-Qaeda in Yemen, the danger of Somalia falling to al-Shabab, and the threat of renewed civil war in Islamist Sudan as a referendum on independence for southern Christians and animists approaches?


This was the stage for Obama to explain what follows the now-abolished Global War on Terror. Where does America stand on the spreading threats to stability, decency and U.S. interests from the Horn of Africa to the Hindu Kush?


On this, not a word. Instead, Obama made a strange and clumsy segue into a pep talk on the economy. Rebuilding it, he declared, “must be our central mission as a people, and my central responsibility as president.”


This in a speech ostensibly about the two wars he is directing. He could not have made more clear where his priorities lie, and how much he sees foreign policy—war policy—as subordinate to his domestic ambitions.


Unfortunately, what for Obama is a distraction is life or death for U.S. troops now on patrol in Kandahar province. Some presidents may not like being wartime leaders. But they don’t get to decide. History does. Obama needs to accept the role. It’s not just the U.S. military, as Baker reports, that is “worried he is not fully invested in the cause.” Our allies, too, are experiencing doubt. And our enemies are drawing sustenance.


Charles Krauthammer is a columnist for the Washington Post. His e-mail address is letters@charleskrauthammer.com.

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