In a few minutes, President Obama will officially announce his plan to send more troops to Afghanistan, which may be the most unsurprising speech in American history. It's unsurprising because he's been telegraphing his decision through news leaks over the last few weeks, but it's also unsurprising because he pretty much told the world that he was going to do this when he was running for president all throughout 2007 and 2008. Millions of Americans -- Your Blogger included -- voted for Obama last November with the knowledge that this was his plan, to make Afghanistan a priority, with the likelihood of more troops.
So it's case of a politician keeping his promise -- even though this is one of those times where breaking a promise, with an honest explanation of why, would have been the right thing to do. In hindsight, in looking at Afghanistan in that critical time of 2006 and 2007, when Obama was initially formulating his ideas on the region, too many people were thinking about the war as it should have been fought in 2003, rather than looking ahead to how things might be in 2010. Because now it's clear that al-Qaeda -- the initial and most justifiable reason for America to fight over there -- is mostly gone, not destroyed unfortunately but moved on to Pakistan, and our troops are defending a government that once seemed promising but has proved to be thoroughly corrupt. We need to fight terrorism aggressively, but here -- where terrorists are being tracked down and arrested, as they should be -- and not by fighting in a place where the terrorists aren't even there anymore.
So why is Obama doing this? Because, quite frankly, this is what American presidents do, or at least have done for the most part since the end of World War II, and the rise of the national security state and the military industrial complex. Presidents gain -- politically and in prestige -- when they are a war president, when they show their solemn willingness to fight, or more bluntly to order young men and women to fight for them. And they're not always wrong decisions, as World War II -- to cite the most obvious and least controversial example -- reminds us. But too often these wars are waged over abstract concepts -- projecting the image of American might to the world, for example -- for which real people end up dying.
So while I think Obama is making the wrong decision, and I'm deeply disappointed, I also have to say I can't imagine a serious contender for president who would not have done this, the politically safe and expedient choice, from those who were seeking the job in 2008. There's no doubt that John "100 Years War" McCain would have sent in the cavalry, probably already, and to bad effect, while a President Hillary Clinton would have been eager to show voters that the first female president could be "an iron lady" when she needed to be. There might have been a glimmer of a chance that Obama would have made the bold choice and not escalated the war, but you knew that wasn't going happen as soon as he lost all his other political capital amid rising unemployment and a bruising battle for healthcare reform.
Making the right choice on Afghanistan would have meant more than a new president, sadly; it would require a new premise that is rooted in the 21st Century, about the things that we can and do do well as a nation and the things we no longer need to be doing, the things we can't afford to do anymore -- like occupy a nation halfway across the globe that isn't as strategically important as we thought -- as opposed to the things we can't afford not to do, like hiring Americans to rebuild our bridges and our levees. It would require America to project moral strength around the globe, not unnecessary and unwanted military strength. But I'm beginning to despair whether we can ever get to that place, not when our discourse is ruled by a Gang of 500 who insists that advocating for more war is the easiest way to show that you're serious -- whether you're a pundit or a president.