Barack Obama is trying to sell his request for more European troops in Afghanistan as a budget-savings move:
Barack Obama said Friday that persuading NATO allies to contribute more troops to Afghanistan could lead to U.S. troops cuts and help improve the U.S. economy, with reduced military expenditure being diverted into tax cuts to help middle class families.
Asked what message his traveling abroad three months before the election sent to Americans, Obama said getting commitments from the United States’ partners would help address some of the domestic issues Americans are facing.
“If we have more NATO troops in Afghanistan, then that’s potentially fewer American troops over the long term, which means we’re spending fewer billions of dollars, which means we can invest those billions of dollars in making sure we’re providing tax cuts to middle class families who are struggling with higher gas prices that will have an impact on our economy.”
This is basically a replay of the early-90s Democratic theme that the declining Cold War defense budget should yield a “peace dividend” of expanded domestic spending; as it turns out, while defense cuts were needed, we still needed a military, and even in wartime the Bush Administration probably hasn’t done enough to rebuild the size of the active armed forces. The last thing we need is a president who thinks that national security in an active theater of war is a prime target for penny-pinching. It’s also a rehash of John Kerry’s effort to turn Iraq into a domestic-spending issue. (Ironically, the same people making this argument screamed bloody murder when Paul Wolfowitz briefly floated the idea that the Iraqis themselves might be able to defray some of the costs of post-war reconstruction of their own country with their oil revenues).
Leave aside for now the fiction that Obama is going to pass a “middle class tax cut” (we all remember what happened to Bill Clinton’s promise to do the same – it didn’t last two weeks after the election). Obama thinks Americans will be happy to see somebody else spend blood and treasure in Afghanistan…but it doesn’t seem to occur to him that Europeans are quite happy with the status quo precisely because they don’t want to bear those burdens themselves.A plea for more troops in Afghanistan was, as it happens, virtually the only concrete thing (and certainly the only one asking anything of his audience) in the warm drizzle of platitudes Obama delivered in Berlin. But he’s shown no understanding of two basic facts. One, nations send their young men and women to war principally because of their own perceived interests and their own internal political dynamics. Obama, with the blithe confidence of a man accustomed to talking his way out of anything, seems to think that his silver tongue will be all it takes to shake more soldiers loose; this is a mirror image of the idea that somehow the U.S. would have some grander coalition of friendly nations if only we didn’t have that meanie George W. Bush around, and it too is a rehash of the Kerry campaign. But Britain, Poland and Australia went to war in Iraq, and France, Germany and Turkey didn’t, principally for reasons of their own leadership’s perceptions of their national interests.
Even the New York Times recognizes that Obama can’t just paper over these issues with ‘just words’:
Europeans are wary about Mr. Obama’s call for more European money for defense and more soldiers for the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan….
Mr. Obama also called for a more muscular Europe to act with the United States in the common defense, a politically delicate matter here that is likely to prove an irritant no matter who wins the presidency.
President Nicolas Sarkozy of France has sent more troops to Afghanistan, but he has faced fierce political criticism for doing so. The Germans continue to be unwilling to send their troops from the safer northern provinces of Afghanistan to the south, where the Taliban is resurgent.
H/T (Note here too the irony: if Obama has any chance of succeeding in getting a more aggressive European response, it is only because parties of the Right now control France and Germany and, perhaps, will soon control Britain as well).
Second, while he gave a nod in his big national security speech to “greater contributions — with fewer restrictions — from NATO allies,” Obama misses the fact that more European troops, especially from the Western European continental states, invariably means more restrictions on effective prosecution of war. A cumbersome joint multinational command was a serious handicap to U.S. efforts in Somalia and Kosovo, and even under Bush the Afghan operation has not been free of such difficulties with European troops who fight, if at all, under a patchwork of restrictive rules of engagement. John McCain, who unlike Obama isn’t just making up his thinking about national security on the fly, has placed this obstacle at the center of his thinking about what more U.S. troops in Afghanistan should mean:
One of the reasons there is no comprehensive campaign plan for Afghanistan is because we have violated one of the cardinal rules of any military operation: unity of command. Today there are no less than three different American military combatant commands operating in Afghanistan, as well as NATO, some of whose members have national restrictions on where their troops can go and what they can do. This is no way to run a war. The top commander in Afghanistan needs to be just that: the supreme commander of all coalition forces. As commander-in-chief, I will work with our allies to ensure unity of command.
McCain is also focused on the one ally we really do need in Afghanistan: the Afghans. Just as the ‘surge’ in Iraq was only possible and successful in the context of a much larger increase in the number of willing and able Iraqi Security Forces, a similar contribution will be needed in Afghanistan:
Everyone knows the United States increased the number of its soldiers in Iraq last year. What’s less well known is that the Iraqis surged with us, adding over 100,000 security forces to their ranks. It’s time for the Afghans to do the same. The Afghan army is already a great success story: a multiethnic, battle-tested fighting force. The problem is, it’s too small, with a projected strength of only 80,000 troops. For years, the Afghans have been telling us they need a bigger army, and they are right. We need to at least double the size of the Afghan army to 160,000 troops.
Of course, McCain’s not selling this as a budget-cutting measure but as a battle-tested strategy for a people winning back control of their own land.
(As I have noted repeatedly, Obama’s other big misconception about Afghanistan is his failure to see that the resurgence of foreign-jihadist activity there is connected to Iraq in the sense that the insurgencies in both countries draw on the same basic pool of recruits).
Unlike in Iraq, Obama’s instincts in Afghanistan haven’t been totally misguided. Unlike the LBJ-era Democrats in Vietnam and their modern counterparts in Iraq, he’s recognized the critical role in Afghanistan of safe havens and supplies from across the border, in this case Pakistan:
Senator Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, said on Sunday, while visiting Afghanistan, that if the United States had “actionable intelligence against high-value Al Qaeda targets, and the Pakistani government was unwilling to go after those targets,” the United States should strike. Mr. Obama, of Illinois, has been viewed warily in Pakistan because of similar previous comments.
I’ll leave aside for now the delicate game we have been playing for years of trying to quietly interdict such Al Qaeda outposts without undermining a Musharraf government that would likely be replaced with something worse, and whether Obama really understands that dynamic. Either way, the recurring problem has been Obama’s inexperience. His gaffes on Afghanistan have been embarrassingly amateurish:
Mr. Obama claimed that the U.S. simply “[doesn’t] have enough capacity right now to deal with” the initial front in America’s seven-year-and-counting Global War on Terror.
Part of the reason for this, said Obama, is that “Arabic translators deployed in Iraq are needed in Afghanistan.”
“We only have a certain number of them and if they are all in Iraq, then its harder for us to use them in Afghanistan,” he said.
This statement was a head-scratched for a pair reasons. The first is the fact that Afghans are neither ethnically nor linguistically Arabic; the second, that interpreters are almost 100% drawn from local populations, rather than deployed by the U.S. military.
Obama continued, saying that “we need agricultural specialists in Afghanistan,” as well — “people who can help them develop other crops than heroin poppies, because the drug trade in Afghanistan is what is driving and financing these terrorist networks. So we need agricultural specialists.
“But if we are sending them to Baghdad, they’re not in Afghanistan.”
When Obama was pressed by Hillary Clinton on his failure to hold any hearings on the Afghan war – he chairs a subcommittee with jurisdiction over NATO operations – he responded:
I became Chairman of this committee at the beginning of this campaign, at the beginning of 2007. So it is true that we haven’t had oversight hearings on Afghanistan.
Now, I understand that Senators running for President sometimes miss votes and the like; that’s inevitable. But committee chairs are supposed to have a role in oversight of foreign policy, if only for the purpose of ensuring that their committees have adequate information; if Obama never intended to do anything about that, he should have declined that commitee post (recent evidence suggests that he doesn’t even know what commitees he is on). Dan Spencer has explained how Obama’s refusal to do his actual job as a Senator is part of a wider pattern of paying attention to national security and the men and women who protect it when the cameras are rolling. But what is especially damning is this: Obama’s entire purported experience to be Commander-in-Chief is his 3 1/2 year tenure in the U.S. Senate, and he admits that for nearly half of that brief span he’s been too busy running for President to do the foreign policy parts of the job. Which is how you end up talking about sending Arabic translators to speak Pashtun, poppy-farm experts to Basra, and expecting European governments to send more troops without more strings attached.