Argument

Premature Evacuation?

Why cutting and running in Afghanistan is good politics for Obama.

Barack Obama is nothing if not a trailblazing politician -- after all, when you're the first African-American elected to the nation's highest office, breaking the mold is sort of part of your political DNA. However, with the announcement by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta on Tuesday, Feb. 1, that the Obama administration intends to end combat operations in Afghanistan in mid-2013 he is laying out another unique course -- seeking re-election this November as the architect of two drawdowns of U.S. military engagements. This is the kind of thing doesn't happen too often in American politics.

Rather, U.S. wars tend to end not before, but after elections. In 1952, Harry S. Truman was forced from office, in part, because of his inability to end the slaughter in Korea. It was his successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who finally brought the war to a conclusion after running on a pledge that he would end the conflict. In 1968, an effort to begin disengaging the United States from the war in Vietnam also disengaged Lyndon B. Johnson from his dreams of another term as "your president." In 1972, the final breakthrough at the Paris peace talks came two months after incumbent President Richard Nixon had been overwhelmingly reelected -- and after he had dropped copious amounts of bombs on North Vietnam. In 2004, George W. Bush had decidedly little interest in talking about retreat from Iraq.

While not a hard and fast rule -- and one that is occasionally out of the hands of a commander-in-chief -- the general direction of wartime presidents is to avoid any hint of military vacillation or weakness before facing voters (even when fighting an unpopular war).

Not Barack Obama. He is running for reelection on a platform of bringing the troops home from Iraq, winding down the war in Afghanistan on a now accelerated timetable, and -- with the death of Osama bin Laden -- as the president who is ending the global war on terror.

Not surprisingly, Obama's Republican opponents are already taking him to task for the decision. GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney last night blasted what he called Obama's "naiveté" in signaling U.S. intentions to the enemy. He was joined by the 2008 GOP nominee, Sen. John McCain, who criticized Obama for sending "reassurance to our enemies that the United States is more eager to leave Afghanistan than to succeed." Romney, who briefly suggested last summer that it was time "to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can" from Afghanistan, has now adopted the position that the United States must defeat the Taliban militarily. As he said in South Carolina last month, "These people [the Taliban] have declared war on us. They've killed Americans. We go anywhere they are and we kill them." It's a rather traditional playbook for a Republican -- but that doesn't mean it will necessarily work with voters.

On the surface, it is certainly unusual for a presidential candidate, particularly a Democrat, to hand his opponents a potential military cudgel by which to bash him. But Obama probably understands better than his opponents that such attacks have rather limited political saliency. Voters strongly oppose the war in Afghanistan and have for quite some time. Indeed, 56 percent of Americans would, if they had their way, bring U.S. troops home from Afghanistan immediately. Republicans will undoubtedly attack Obama's "retreat" from the war, but if the White House is assuming that voters won't care or that they will view the decision as a positive example of presidential leadership, they're probably right. It wouldn't be a U.S. presidential election cycle if Republicans weren't attacking their opponents as weak on national security -- but tradition shouldn't be confused with smart politics.

And this doesn't necessarily mean that Obama's decision was driven by political considerations, either. One of the more underreported elements of Panetta's comments on Tuesday was his call for an "enduring presence" by the United States in Afghanistan beyond 2014, which was the original NATO deadline for the withdrawal of foreign forces. While the U.S. combat mission might be ending sooner than originally planned, it's quite possible that the U.S. role in Afghanistan's politics will continue for some time.

Still, a desire to wind down the war quickly, the potential for kickstarting negotiations with the Taliban, and the recent decision by France to pull the plug on its involvement in Afghanistan in 2013 were likely greater influences on the administration's decision-making than creating an applause line for the fall presidential campaign.

Nonetheless, it is striking that the White House appears largely unconcerned about the political fallout from this decision. In 2008, candidate Obama ran on a platform of more fully resourcing the war in Afghanistan -- a stance that was motivated in part by a desire to shield himself from traditional GOP attacks on Democratic national security weakness. Within mere weeks of taking office -- and before even completing a serious review of the mission in Afghanistan -- Obama approved sending 17,000 troops to the war. In December 2009, according to Bob Woodward's account, he announced his intention to surge troops in Afghanistan against what appeared to be his better instincts. It was a decision, again, that appeared motivated, in part, by a desire to avoid charges of ignoring military counsel or not taking seriously enough the threat of jihadist terror. That now seems like a very long time ago -- and a very different Democratic politician.

To be sure, if Obama's State of the Union address -- bookended by reflections on the killing of bin Laden -- is any indication, Obama has not backed down from an inclination to tout his military bonafides. Indeed, the president's 2012 website provides a compelling snapshot into his campaign's mindset about how foreign policy will help their candidate in 2012.

It doesn't actually mention the words "foreign policy."

Rather the focus is on "national security" -- in particular, Obama's commitment to the nation's veterans and a strong military as well as his efforts to rid the world of the threat of loose nukes and al Qaeda terrorists.

Put it all together and we have a rather counterintuitive construct for a presidential candidate: tough enough to pursue and kill those that threaten America, but brave enough to take risks for peace and end America's wars. That such a strategy might work is unusual; that it's even being tried is fascinating indeed. A president running on a platform for ending and winding down America's wars -- fancy that.

JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Brothers in Arms

Vladimir Putin's stubborn support for the Syrian regime is intended to shore up his faltering support within Russia.

Eleven months and more than 7,000 deaths later, the Syrian regime's only ally outside of Iran remains Vladimir Putin's Russia, which has provided both diplomatic support to President Bashar al-Assad by obstructing key Security Council resolutions and material support in the form of a vigorous arms trade with Damascus. The Kremlin has proven that it is expert in the grim application of realpolitik to defend its last remaining friend in the Middle East.

There is, however, another important element to Putin's defiant support for the Syrian regime: the upcoming Russian presidential election, scheduled for March 4. Putin's orchestrated return to power as president has been complicated by an increasingly vocal domestic opposition movement, which took to the streets en masse to protest against voter fraud in December's parliamentary elections.

These demonstrations, coupled with the general weariness at the decline of living standards and increasing state corruption, have raised the possibility that Putin may not secure a majority in the first round of voting, a contingency he has acknowledged as possible -- though it would no doubt be politically disastrous for him and his ruling United Russia party. As a consequence, Putin is attempting to shore up his reputation as an unyielding strongman abroad to detract from the increasing perception of weakness at home.

Putin has not had a significant foreign policy standoff since the 2008 Russian-Georgian War, which was billed as an effort to reclaim Russia's "near abroad" from creeping Western and NATO influence. He opposed, but did not veto, the Security Council's authorization of a NATO-imposed no-fly zone in Libya last year. He now appears to be compensating for that acquiescence by backing a friendly tyrant and showing a wobbly electorate that Russia won't be pushed around by American and European democracy-promoters.

Putin has hard military reasons for supporting Assad's Syria, home to Russia's only warm-water port in the Mediterranean and a longstanding symbol of Russian influence in the Middle East. In 1957, Bashar's father Hafez, then still a Syrian Air Force pilot, received his training in MiG fighter jets in the Soviet Union. Since the end of the Cold War, the Syrian-Russian relationship has not only endured but strengthened. In recent years, Damascus and Moscow have enjoyed an arms trade estimated at $4 billion. Last month, a Russian naval flotilla, including the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, docked in the Russian-controlled port of Tartous. Two weeks ago, Russia dispatched a freighter carrying several dozen tons of munitions to Syria via Cyprus. And just as the Arab League was deciding to endorse a policy of peaceful transition of power in Syria, Moscow inked a $550 million deal to provide Assad with 36 new Yakovlev Yak-130 attack jets.

Putin's defiance on Syria is also an effort to reclaim the mantle of nationalism, which he once used to his advantage but has now slipped beyond his control. Great Russian chauvinism, historically exploited by czars and Communist Party general secretaries, has always been both an asset and a liability to Putin's political fortunes. Far-right nationalists oppose Russia's financing of puppet-regimes in the Caucasus, for instance, yet Putin has underwritten jingoistic pro-Kremlin youth movements such as Nashi, whose agents have harassed Western diplomats, violently disrupted pro-democracy demonstrations, and staged annual indoctrinating summer camp programs where figures such as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili are compared to Nazis.

As Putin has sought to project strength abroad, he has intensified his efforts to whitewash his authoritarian political record and re-write Russian history. Over the last month, he produced a barrage of opinion pieces covering everything from his program of economic and political "reforms," to the imperative of preserving the "dominance of Russian culture." Nostalgia for lost great power status looms large in the mind of a man who once called the collapse of the Soviet Union "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century." In another recent article, Putin attempted to regain the ground lost to opposition nationalists by reasserting the platform of Russian exceptionalism that United Russia has long cultivated. "The Russian people and Russian culture are the linchpin, the glue that binds together this unique civilization," he wrote. "But all kinds of provocateurs and our enemies will do their best to snatch this linchpin from Russia ... What they really want in the end is to make people destroy their homeland with their own hands."

Putin's Russia has also employed this ultra-nationalist rhetoric in an intensive media war meant to prop up the Syrian regime. Kremlin-controlled media outlets, such as Pravda and the English-language channel Russia Today, have repeatedly parroted Assad's justification that his brutal assault on Syrian demonstrators is actually a crackdown on "terrorists" abetted by foreign intelligence agencies. To rally domestic support, Putin has implicitly drawn a parallel between the Syrian regime's crackdown on a civil protest movement and Russia's scorched-earth campaign in Chechnya.

It's a familiar playbook for Putin. The Second Chechen War vastly increased his poll ratings when he was still Boris Yeltsin's last prime minister and heir apparent. Assad's rhetoric, which depicts the Syrian demonstrators as a contagion to be "cleansed," echoes Putin's infamous threat to Chechen rebels that he would "wipe them out in the outhouse." By defending Assad's propaganda war on an imagined Islamist insurgency, Putin is reminding Russians of what made them want to vote for him over a decade ago.

Yet Putin's opportunism might just be his rivals' opportunity. The United States, the European Union, and the Arab League -- all committed to phasing out the Assad dictatorship -- stands to remind the tens of thousands of Russians set to protest this week that their battle for self-determination is the same as their counterparts in Syria. Russian democrats should be encouraged to show Putin that his foreign policy is a symptom of, not an antidote to, his defunct domestic agenda.

SERGEI KARPUKHIN/AFP/Getty Images