As a loyal citizen and a loyal Democrat, I hope that the decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan will produce a good result. Yet I cannot believe that it will. At worst, it will bring us to the end of the road to hell George W. Bush started us down almost exactly 8 years ago by bringing Islamists to power in Pakistan. At best, it will tie down our resources and attention for another three or four more years, only to produce an inconclusive and unpromising outcome rather like the one we can now see in Iraq. Meanwhile, I cannot believe that it will be politically advantageous to the Administration--certainly not among the voters, as opposed to the punditocracy of Washington, D. C.
In my opinion--and I could be wrong--this latest step is a victory for Osama Bin Laden and all he represents. 9/11, I have come to believe, was, from Bin Laden's perspective, a political master stroke. He wanted above all to discredit the Muslim regimes allied with the United States--and by provoking the invasions of two Muslim countries by George W. Bush, he gave a big boost to Islamic radicalism. The loss of Taliban power in Afghanistan was a setback that has now largely been made good. The elimination of Saddam Hussein was a boon both for Bin Laden and for Iran. What Bin Laden must fear more than anything else, and certainly more than his own death, is that he might return to the obscurity he so richly deserves. President Obama's decision insures that that will not happen any time soon.
For twenty years I have been teaching courses that relentlessly harp upon the same point: the results of any military action ultimately depend on its political effects, which in turn depend on political factors. Our policy depends on two political assumptions: that Afghanistan can create a viable government, and that Pakistan will prove itself at long last a dependable ally. Try as I might, I cannot put any faith in either assumption. We still have not found our way around the great unmentionable of the situation in Afghanistan: that the Taliban has come back in large part because powerful elements within the Pakistani government want it back in power in Afghanistan. And we are also refusing to face another unmentionable: that our policies in Afghanistan and in the tribal areas of Pakistan have made the Taliban a much more significant threat within Pakistan itself.
This evening as I drove home from work I heard Secretary of State Clinton proudly announce that NATO had pledged an additional 7000 troops. I was sad to think that for the next two years at least, the senior Obama national security team will be focused upon the fate of one of the poorest and remotest nations on earth, simply because, nine years ago, a terrorist attack on the United States was plotted there. I still think that the idea that we must create friendly, cooperative states in Muslim areas where states have failed or never existed is neither justifiable nor, above all, cost-effective. Attacks can be plotted anywhere and Bin Laden is now surely living in Pakistan. As my friend Andrew Bacevich explained two mornings ago on NPR, putting American troops in Afghanistan is not the way to head off new attacks in the west.
I am also worried about the purely military problem in Afghanistan. Empires based on naval supremacy such as the British in the last three centuries and the United States in the last 60 years do best in coastal regions. Afghanistan is landlocked and our supply lines, from Pakistan and Central Asia, are politically and militarily vulnerable. The longer that we keep large forces in ungovernable Muslim areas, the more sophisticated IED's will become.
I was sad listening to President Obama the other night because it seemed at times that he was trying to be himself and George W. Bush at the same time. I was particularly shocked when he accused terrorists of defiling the Muslim religion--it may be true, but it is not the place of non-Muslims to say so. He is taking a huge gamble, counting on his already enormous worldwide prestige to lead the world to fall in behind this new step--but, like JFK at the Bay of Pigs, also betting much of it on a very questionable enterprise. And he is taking a bigger risk at home. It is not generally understood that Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 initially pulled back from world affairs, and that until at least 1938 he ran a far more isolationist Administration than Herbert Hoover. He knew his most important work was at home. So is President Obama's.
Obama's decision has already won grudging endorsements from some Republicans (although the opposite decision could have done the same.) Given the overwhelming prejudice of our foreign policy establishment towards military action, he, like Lyndon Johnson in 1965, made the consensus foreign policy decision--which does not in the least make it the wisest one. I suspect he has disappointed a great many people around the world, but I hope it all works out.