Friday, October 30, 2009

Gut Check for the President

David Brooks hits the nail on the head with this article about the key question over Afghanistan (because I've raised them all myself has nothing to do with this judgment, of course). It has nothing to do with troop numbers, really. I believe that troop numbers are an important but not vital question to answer about our war effort. Even strategy is not the biggest question, though it is surely important. No, the vital questions are about President Obama, and defense experts aren't too concerned about the president's choices on strategy and numbers:

But they do not know if he possesses the trait that is more important than intellectual sophistication and, in fact, stands in tension with it. They do not know if he possesses tenacity, the ability to fixate on a simple conviction and grip it, viscerally and unflinchingly, through complexity and confusion. They do not know if he possesses the obstinacy that guided Lincoln and Churchill, and which must guide all war presidents to some degree.

Their second concern is political. They do not know if President Obama regards Afghanistan as a distraction from the matters he really cares about: health care, energy and education. Some of them suspect that Obama talked himself into supporting the Afghan effort so he could sound hawkish during the campaign. They suspect he is making a show of commitment now so he can let the matter drop at a politically opportune moment down the road.

Finally, they do not understand the president’s fundamental read on the situation. Most of them, like most people who have spent a lot of time in Afghanistan, believe this war is winnable. They do not think it will be easy or quick. But they do have a bedrock conviction that the Taliban can be stymied and that the governments in Afghanistan and Pakistan can be strengthened. But they do not know if Obama shares this gut conviction or possesses any gut conviction on this subject at all.

Bingo. On all three questions.

And while I will not speculate about the motives of a president visiting Dover to see the caskets of our fallen military and civilian personnel coming home from Afghanistan, I do worry that he will use the surely real sorrow he feels for being the man responsible for ordering them to Afghanistan where they died as an excuse to pull back from deciding to win.

I titled this sparse post, "Thus Conscience Does Make Cowards of Us All?" because I want our president to make the fundamental decision to win the war in Afghanistan. All other questions are less important than that basic decision. And the title hits to the concern I have over President Obama's Dover visit. Will he decide to lose our war in Afghanistan--whether quickly or slowly--because the guilt of ordering our best young people to defend us who then die in our defense, is too overwhelming for him to bear?

The president should always be aware of the price real people pay defending our country. But his reaction to that awareness--that guilt even--must not be to hide our troops and refuse to use them to win. Our president must make sure our troops die for a good reason, die for victory, die despite the best training, leaders, and equipment we can provide them, and die knowing that their sacrifice will not be in vain.

If he does those things, our troops--as well as friends, allies, and neutrals--will know that when we go to war, we go to win. That's what presidents are supposed to do.

War is always Hell, whether a "good" war or "bad" war. Soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen will all die, clutching their spilling guts and crying for their mothers; come home mangled physically or psychologically; or bear the burden of wondering if they can be proud of the terrible things they had to do to fight, survive, and win, no matter how the people back home judge their war.

All a president can do is make sure that the Hell our troops endure leads to a better world than it would be without their sacrifice. I just don't know if our president can do this.