Voice

Obama's Debacle

The president has protected his right flank for now, but history won’t be so kind.

He cut out the generals. He cut out the secretary of defense. He cut out the secretary of state. And in the end, he produced a schizophrenic policy that will almost certainly go down as the greatest foreign-policy debacle of his administration.

Afghanistan may not be Barack Obama's Vietnam, but that is only because it has failed to stir national tensions in the way the war in Southeast Asia did. He may therefore get away with his errors in judgment and his victimization by circumstance to a degree that Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon could not. But it is impossible to read accounts like David Sanger's in the New York Times this weekend without concluding that the primary drivers behind U.S. AfPak policy for the past three years have been politics, naivete, and intellectual dishonesty. It also clear that on this issue, the White House's self-imposed distance from the rest of the president's cabinet and the military may have kept the United States from making even more egregious errors and suffering even greater losses in this latest tragic round of the distant region's great game.

The question remains whether, as it scuttles for the door in Afghanistan, the United States will intentionally or inadvertently usher in forces that could leave the region more dangerous. The charade of the NATO summit wrapping up in Chicago does not bode well in that respect. While President Obama and Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai posed for cameras and spoke warmly of their shared vision for the country after the U.S. departure, what they offered up was a kind of joint hallucination -- a better-functioning, more democratic, more stable Afghanistan that is patently impossible if it continues to be ruled by the weak and corrupt Karzai, if the country remains as fragmented as it is, if its neighbors continue to meddle in its affairs (as they will), if we deal in the Taliban as if somehow they were now changed men, if we turn our backs on the undoubtedly worsening plight of Afghan women, and if we ignore the fact that the single most successful U.S. agricultural development program in history was the restoration of Afghanistan's heroin industry.

That the United States and Pakistan, a country the Obama team acknowledged, according to Sanger, as the region's primary threat from its first days in office, had yet another public diplomatic tiff on the edges of the Chicago conference only shows that every inch of the fabric of America's policies in the region seems to be fraying simultaneously. That the tiff was over the reopening of Pakistani supply lines into Afghanistan illustrates the confounding circularity of U.S. problems in the region: To reach al Qaeda in Afghanistan we needed Pakistan's assistance, so we dialed back the pressure over Pakistan's nuclear program and ignored the fact that its intelligence services were key supporters of al Qaeda and its Taliban allies. We also started pouring in aid, which enabled the Pakistanis to expand their nuclear stockpiles and their military. Once we went in to Afghanistan to get al Qaeda and the Taliban, they fled to Pakistan. When we pursued them, it inflamed the Pakistanis. But we failed to effectively pressure them to act against the militants for fear that the country might fracture irreparably. And now, after more than a decade of this, we are willing to cut a deal with anyone to paper over the problem in our eagerness to get out of Afghanistan and declare "mission accomplished" even if it includes the not persuasively rehabilitated Taliban we were after in the first place.

As Sanger's story reveals, the president opposed his own policy of sending in more troops to stabilize Afghanistan from the moment he approved it after months and months of messy internal wrangling. So why did he do it? The answer is that that Obama was leaving Iraq and could not afford to look weak in Afghanistan at the same time or he would come under political attack from the right. Getting out faster might also alienate the military to the point that public discord would damage the president. Although White House-military relations were strained from the beginning of his administration, Obama's team worked hard to keep a lid on tensions. So they swallowed their doubts about the military judgments they were getting about a conflict they were increasingly sure was unwinnable.

The result was a strategy straight out of the Wizard of Oz: As the scarecrow informed Dorothy when she reached a fork in the Yellow Brick Road, "Of course, some people do go both ways." The United States would increase its troops but only as a prelude to getting them out. Sanger's reporting suggests that this was not a confused policy, but rather an intellectually dishonest one. Obama's plan from the beginning was to cover his tracks to the exits with the Afghan "surge."

"I think he hated the idea from the beginning," Sanger quotes one of the president's advisors as saying about his boss. "[T]he military was ‘all in,' as they say, and Obama wasn't."

Within just over a year of the announcement of sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, the president ordered his advisers to start making plans for a U.S. exit. "This time there would be no announced national security meetings, no debates with the generals. Even Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton were left out until the final six weeks," according to Sanger. In other words, the planning process would be left to those who agreed with the president. Dissenters were not invited. It's hardly the picture of a harmonious policy process or a "tough-guy" leader in sync with the military that the White House was eager to sell around the moves against villains like Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki, or Muammar al-Qaddafi.

The process is troubling, but in the final analysis, Obama's biggest error was in not trusting his judgment earlier. His White House team -- from Vice President Joe Biden to National Security Advisor Tom Donilon -- were Afghan skeptics from Day 1. And frankly, they were right about the situation even while many in the Pentagon were calling for much deeper involvement. Perhaps the president felt he had no choice, defending himself with those 30,000 troops not so much against AfPak enemies as against political opponents on the right. Perhaps he was right that this approach produced the swiftest, least acrimonious exit.

Still, the whole thing leaves a bad taste. In handling the matter as he did, the president has now assured that when the post-conflict mess in Afghanistan and Pakistan grows uglier still, he will own those results. He may have protected himself against attacks from the right for a brief while, but the judgment of history may prove harsh.

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David Rothkopf

Accounts and Accountability and Sea Monsters

How The Avengers explains the world.

This week, the Avengers continued to confront giant mechanical sea monsters from outer space on the silver screen. In the real world, politicians and businesspeople were locked in similarly intense contests of will. The stakes in both dramas were high. The dialogue was sharp. And as with the Avengers and their merry extended family of mayhem-makers, the collateral damage -- from both their conflicts and their collaborations -- was catastrophic.

In the movie and the actual, considerably less noisy planet Earth, the battle lines were a bit blurry. In the movie, the so-called heroes are motivated by loyalty to a guy who was seeking to harness a mysterious, powerful, blue, and swirlingly 3-D power source on behalf of the Hollywood-imagined military industrial complex with a heart of gold upon which our world depends. Among their band are a narcissistic billionaire arms merchant, a demigod bent on defeating his half brother, a former assassin, and a gentle soul whom we don't start rooting for until he suppresses his better instincts and lets his anger-management issues take over (even if it means slapping around his fellow "heroes" to comic effect).

All of us who follow business and politics closely know that in real life it is even more difficult to tell who is on whose side because the good guys tend not to wear tights -- or inevitably win in the end. So, for example, in the United States, Americans watched as President Barack Obama's deep-pocketed friends at his super PAC unleashed a commercial attacking deep-pocketed Mitt Romney for having been a venture capitalist who restructured businesses with profits in mind. The effort played in counterpoint to the simultaneous saga of the bank still bearing the name of America's alpha plutocrat, J.P. Morgan, as it lost $2 billion thanks to trading mistakes just days after its chief executive was making his most recent public plea to keep regulators off the back of banks.

Obama was seeking to deliver a lasting blow to Romney's reputation, hoping to permanently cast him in the role of rapacious fat cat before Romney could offer himself up with his preferred identity, that of competent supermanager. Obama's eagerness to strike the blow this early in the campaign was perhaps due to his acute awareness of the politicians vs. businesspeople saga currently taking place across the Atlantic and its potential consequences for the U.S. elections this November. Because if Europe blows up, Obama is likely to go the way of the almost a dozen other incumbents struck down for their perceived complicity in making a mess of the finances of essentially the entire developed world. Unless, that is, Romney is seen as a malevolent force who can't be trusted to replace Obama.

In Europe, it is also sometimes hard to know who is on whose side by their job description. But essentially, Germany's politicians and bureaucrats have taken a position that they describe as being "pro-fiscal responsibility" but that also happens to be "pro-banking." It suggests that wayward countries should effectively bear all the costs of the bad deals made by the financial community when lending to those countries earlier. They suggest it creates a "moral hazard" if countries do not cover all their debts while turning a blind eye to the equally obvious moral hazard associated with letting banks make reckless loans without fearing any consequences. In France and Greece, meanwhile, politicians have taken a different stance from their German counterparts, suggesting looking out for people is as important as protecting the shareholders of big financial institutions -- even as they downplayed the complicity of governments in getting everyone into this mess to begin with.

In other words, high drama and, with nary a superhero in sight, plenty of the slam-bang conflict and moral ambiguity that seems to play well with ticket-buying audiences these days.

Absent steroidal men in capes or high-tech rocket suits in the midst of these showdowns over economic ideology in the United States and Europe, there has been one set of actors you could root for, the one every audience likes best: themselves. Because this week we saw important evidence that an empowered public is the best and only available superhero.

We saw that in the elections in France and Greece that gave people the opportunity to do what Europe's leaders were unwilling to -- they led. They reset the agenda and they insisted political leaders were accountable. They tossed out Germany's fairly dependable supporter, Nicolas Sarkozy, in France, and they ushered in a political upheaval in Greece that now has the world on edge wondering whether a Greek departure from the eurozone is inevitable. They also delivered a Hulk-like blow to Chancellor Angela Merkel's party in local elections in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state.

This stood in stark contrast with what was simultaneously happening in the business community. This past week, in instance after instance, we saw that even in an age of mind-blowingly excessive pay packages for top executives -- allegedly to compensate them for the high-stakes decisions they must make and the risks they must assume -- business leaders have become extraordinarily adept at avoiding taking responsibility for their actions.

It's a bitter irony. Champions of markets talk about the ruthless accountability they demand. But what of all those bankers demanding that the people of Greece pay for years because the financial community made too much cash available on too easy terms for the feckless leaders of that country? They're still making the big bucks. They still have their jobs. And they're still demanding to be made whole. Or what about Jamie Dimon at JPMorgan Chase? If a chief executive can avoid assuming responsibility for wildly inappropriate trading within his bank, what message does it send? He sacrificed some of his colleagues but held onto his own job.

Or, for that matter, what about Rupert Murdoch and the phone-hacking scandal that has his closest executives being indicted and his son losing his job? Why does the buck not stop with the man who has collected the most bucks of all? Or what about Aubrey McClendon at Chesapeake Energy, who created a private hedge fund within his company, gambled the company's money, and then, when discovered, tried to get away with offering little more than a thin apology?

Big financial institutions unhesitatingly call for the public sector to make them whole, to bail them out, and to stay off their backs when it comes to regulation. They collect the upside of their financial adventures but spread the costs among the population at large. CEOs of big companies similarly capture the upside but make their shareholders and colleagues pay the price for their failings.

It seems the rule for today's private sector is that the bigger the bank account, the less the accountability. It's an indictment of the oversight role played by boards and big institutional shareholders, not to mention regulators. But it also should be a disqualification for any sort of public support for or coddling of these enterprises, which continue -- even in the midst of crisis -- to seem devoted to the private enrichment of a relative few who wish to stretch or live beyond the law -- except of course, when they can bend the law or the government that enforces it to serve their needs.

So there you have it, folks: a Hollywood happy ending. Given half a chance, regular people power works. As for modern markets, until there is real accountability, they're the giant mechanized sea monsters threatening us all. It's time we found a few larger-than-life men and women to bring the bad guys leading them to justice. And if their shareholders won't do it, then voters can. A good place to start? How about kicking out the cronies and puppets and putting in place governments that demand a higher standard of behavior, in business and in politics?

Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images