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Exit, Minus Strategy

Barack Obama has clearly decided to cut his losses in Afghanistan. Will all hell break lose when he does?

President Barack Obama listened to his generals the first time around; now he knows better. The Obama of 2009, new to the job, unsure of his relationship to the military and perhaps slightly overawed by his superstar commanders, David Petraeus and Stanley MacChrystal, agreed to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan in the name of a counterinsurgency campaign he didn't quite believe in. The Obama of 2013 is prepared to overrule the recommendation of his current commander, Gen. John Allen, and leave few -- if any -- troops behind after U.S. combat units pull out at the end of 2014. That's what's known as a learning curve.

America's obsession with terrorism has wrenched the relationship between civilian leadership and the military in several different directions. The attacks of 9/11 unleashed the ideologues around President George W. Bush -- and exposed his own fervent dreams -- while the uniformed military clung to the cautionary precepts inherited from the Vietnam War. It was Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld who acted as field marshal of the war in Iraq, operating through the compliant commander he chose, Tommy Franks. Having routed the Taliban on his own terms, Rumsfeld felt that he had every reason to ignore advice from service commanders who argued for more troops, much as he ignored advice from State Department officials who warned to prepare for the post-conflict setting. We know where that got us.

By the time Barack Obama took office, the situation was reversed. Obama was a cautionary figure with an ingrained skepticism about America's capacity to reshape the world, especially through the use of force. But by 2009, David Petraeus, mastermind of the 2007 "surge" in Iraq, had come to incarnate a new kind of hero-general, bold and brilliant and charismatic. Stanley MacChrystal, who replaced him as commander of forces in Afghanistan, had the ascetic appeal of a Jedi Knight. Both men, as Fred Kaplan writes in his new book The Insurgents, captured the public imagination and helped re-write the public understanding of military culture and military leadership. And both had come to be gripped by a master idea: counterinsurgency, or COIN. They were ideologues, just as Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney had been in the years before.

Obama never caught the bug, as Bush had. He tasked his vice president, Joe Biden, with punching holes in the optimistic counterinsurgency narrative. Over time, according to Bob Woodward in Obama's Wars, the president grew increasingly skeptical that the U.S. could remake Afghanistan in the few short years during which American troops would remain there, or even that it needed to. He wondered why the United States had to worry about the Taliban taking over Afghanistan when the real threat was al Qaeda. But both Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insisted that a Taliban victory would bring al Qaeda back to Afghanistan; and Obama ultimately agreed to a slightly diminished version of MacChrystal's middle option, which had called for 40,000 troops along with a big increase in civilian presence. He may have felt that he could not afford to substitute his judgment for that of America's military poster boys.

COIN has had its great experiment; and it has been found wanting. The massive program of development assistance and government reform which accompanied the military surge has done little either to reduce the corruption and incompetence of the Afghan state or to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan public. One recent study found that in the country's most fiercely contested provinces aid is negatively correlated with both stability and popular perceptions of the international presence. It never seemed plausible -- save, perhaps, to MacChrystal, who spoke of bringing "government-in-a-box" -- that the U.S. could significantly boost the legitimacy of Hamid Karzai's government in three years; and White House officials have long since stopped speaking of political or economic reform as a crucial piece of their exit strategy.

Over the last year, as public support for the war effort has dropped as low as 23 percent, Obama has abandoned one piece after another of the strategy he once envisioned. A new "partnership" with Pakistan involving development assistance, security coordination, and regional diplomacy was to persuade Islamabad to close up the sanctuaries where insurgents trained and organized, and took refuge from U.S. forces. That, too, has turned out to be a pipe dream; it's a good day when Islamabad and Washington are even speaking to one another. The neologism "AfPak," meant to denote the inextricability of the two problems, has become an anachronism. Indeed, the office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, which Obama created soon after taking office in order to forge "whole-of-government" solutions to this complex regional problem has probably outlived its usefulness. It was, after all, created for Richard Holbrooke, the late diplomat who fervently embraced this approach. The White House is said to be thinking of replacing the office with a special envoy.

The exit strategy from Afghanistan increasingly looks like: exit, minus strategy. General Allen has been constantly ratcheting down the number of U.S. troops needed to remain after 2014 to carry out counterterror missions and continue training Afghan forces -- from 20,000 to 15,000 to three options at 3,000, 6,000, or 9,000 troops. But that still may be too much: Earlier this week, Benjamin Rhodes, the deputy national security advisor, said that the president may leave no troops behind at all. That was a message to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who's now in Washington trying to make case for a larger residual U.S. presence, but also to the Pentagon. General Allen is not David Petraeus. (David Petraeus is no longer David Petraeus, for that matter.) And Obama, who must think about many things which do not enter into his generals' ken, like public opinion and the budget deficit, will make up his own mind. He is saying, in effect, that he can live with failure.

Is that a bad thing? In a Washington Post op-ed last November, Kimberly and Frederick Kagan, the gung-ho generals of the Institute for the Study of War, predicted that, absent a remaining force of 40,000 troops, the United States will be unable to engage in serious counterterror operations, affect the Afghan political process as the country approaches a crucial election in 2014, or engage in meaningful nation-building.

That may be hyperbolic, but it certainly defines what's at stake. It is, for example, extremely unlikely that Afghan forces will be able to stand on their own once U.S. troops leave. Even the Pentagon's extremely rosy December 2012 progress report concedes that only one of the Afghan National Army's 23 brigades is ready to fight on its own. And a recent article in the New York Times reports that the people of Marja district in Helmand Province, brought back to bustling life after months of bloody battle by U.S. Marines, have already resigned themselves to the return of the Taliban once American forces pack up.

The Obama who hopes to pivot to Asia, and to nation-building-at-home, just may not care that much anymore. I imagine that the president and his team, now thoroughly cured of the military's can-do spirit of optimism, regard reports of Afghan military readiness with as much skepticism as most of the rest of us do. They would like to keep Afghan whole after 2014, but they are no longer prepared to pay the price that may be required to do so. They are hoping -- but it's just a hope -- that they can close the door on Afghanistan as they already have on Iraq, continuing to provide billions in development assistance, budgetary support, and military training while the Afghans sort out their security and political problems on their own. Drone warfare has seriously eroded al Qaeda's ranks in Pakistan, and the war on terror has moved on to Yemen and North Africa. Even the counterterror aspect of the Afghan war has thus lost some of its urgency.

And if the hopes for Afghan self-sufficiency prove baseless, as they very well might? U.S. failure in Vietnam was supposed to bring calamity in its wake -- but it didn't. If Afghanistan really is the Vietnam of our time, then Barack Obama, like Richard Nixon, has decided to cut his losses.

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Terms of Engagement

Welcome, Know-Nothings

The new Congress is a bunch of ignoramuses when it comes to foreign policy. And, frankly, that's probably a good thing right now.

The 113th Congress has just been sworn in, and it's a safe bet that it will be no more engaged with foreign policy, and no more competent to serve as a useful check on the Obama administration, than was its predecessor. This is mostly a prerogative of the opposition, and congressional Republicans have paid remarkably little attention to President Barack Obama's conduct of foreign affairs. Last month, they roused themselves to block confirmation of a United Nations treaty on the rights of the disabled, which apparently posed a grave threat to the nation's sovereignty. In recent weeks, of course, the GOP has lashed itself into a fury over the September 11 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, laboring to gin up a tragic mishap into a full-fledged scandal. But on Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, China, and the war on terror -- not much. Really, it's been a blessing.

It has not always been so, of course. While foreign policy, unlike domestic policy, does not normally depend on legislation or congressional authorization, thus giving far greater latitude to the executive branch, presidents have often had to face stiff resistance from Congress. President Lyndon Johnson provoked a storm of opposition on Capitol Hill when he escalated the Vietnam War; William Fulbright, a fellow Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), impaneled a series of hearings that showcased devastating critiques of Johnson's conduct of the war. Politicians on both sides of the aisle believed that Johnson had hoodwinked them into supporting the Gulf of Tonkin resolution enabling the escalation; many of them vowed never again to automatically defer to the president's authority to conduct foreign policy. 

In the mid-1970s, Democratic Senator Frank Church conducted spectacular hearings into the CIA's history of assassinations. Republicans fought President Jimmy Carter every step of the way on his human rights policy and support for left-leaning regimes in Latin America. When Ronald Reagan reversed Carter's policies in order to back anti-Communist insurgents, a Democratic-controlled Congress passed the Boland Amendment banning military aid to the Nicaraguan Contras. It was this prohibition that Reagan tried to evade with the elaborate subterfuge known as Iran-Contra -- which was itself fully exposed to the public in the Senate's weeks-long Iran-Contra hearings that made Oliver North a household name. Had President Richard Nixon's impeachment not been fresh in everyone's minds, Democrats might well have moved to impeach Reagan over the lies required to conduct a secret foreign policy.

The election of 1994, which swept conservatives to power, marked the demise of the centrist tradition in foreign (and domestic) policy. Jesse Helms, the new Republican chairman of the SFRC, wanted to get rid of the U.N., which he did his best to defund, and did not much like foreign countries (though he did his best to keep Rhodesia in white hands). It was mortifying to try to explain to foreigners how such a yahoo had come to exercise so much influence over U.S. foreign policy. Still, even Helms was prepared to make deals with Joe Biden, the committee's senior Democrat. "Helms was perfectly happy to have a strongly assertive role for Congress in foreign policy," says Norman Ornstein, the congressional sage who hangs his battered hat at the American Enterprise Institute.

That may cast a slightly generous retrospective glow on "Cousin Jesse," who mostly seemed to want a strongly assertive role for himself. But what is certainly true is that senior Republicans like Bob Dole still considered foreign policy an essential element of their job (though even Dole shamelessly pandered to the know-nothing right when he ran for president in 1996, lampooning U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali as if he were a cartoon character). Some of these figures continued to serve up to the present, the most obvious example being Richard Lugar, the just-replaced ranking Republican on SFRC and a leading authority on arms control. Lugar was defeated in a primary by a far-right conservative, which certainly sends a message to any Republican thinking of making a name for himself as a player -- that is, a non-obstructive one -- on international affairs.  

Ornstein argues that the big change in recent years is that today's generation of yahoos, who view government itself with contempt, have little interest in defending Congress's institutional role. He views the debate over the disability treaty, where members thronged around a wheelchair-bound Bob Dole before voting down the treaty he had come to endorse -- a treaty that mostly codified U.S. law but was opposed by home-schoolers -- as a low point. "That kind of obstruction means almost willfully obviating a serious role for the Senate," Ornstein says. "That suggests to a president that if you can find any way to accomplish your goals through executive action, you should."

I think that's part, but not all, of the problem. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have drained public faith that the United States can and should do good in the world, leading to a surly mood toward foreign policy on the left as well as the right and stirring up the nativism that is never far from the surface of American life. It has long been true that a politician can make waves by attacking the U.N., but can only hurt himself by defending it; now the same has increasingly become true of foreign policy itself. Serious figures in both parties today steer clear of the foreign relations committees. If John Kerry does become secretary of state, the new SFRC chairman will be Robert Menendez, a Cuban-American whose international portfolio to date consists largely of hostility to the Castro regime. And the defeat of Howard Berman, a bipartisan figure whose active role on international affairs left him vulnerable to a Republican challenger, leaves Eliot Engel, no heavyweight, as the senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. On the positive side, the chairmanship of the committee has passed from Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, another Cuban-American, who championed deep cuts in foreign aid and State Department spending, to Ed Royce, generally considered a moderate.

But the Republicans have a very specific problem of their own: They can't make a serious dent in Barack Obama's foreign policy. This is in part because their nativist base doesn't care, but also because by carrying out the war on terror more or less as George W. Bush did, Obama has neutralized the traditional argument that Democrats are soft on bad guys. Congressional Republicans haven't subjected Obama's prosecution of the war in Afghanistan, or his response to the Arab Spring, to the searching scrutiny that previous presidents have had to endure because they don't have a meaningful alternative to offer. They do, however, exploit whatever small opportunities they can find to cast Obama as a danger to national security -- for example, by blocking any effort to transfer detainees from military prisons.

And this brings us to Benghazi, the great foreign-policy "debate" of 2012. The furor over the deaths of Amb. Chris Stevens and three other Americans, which has lead to multiple congressional investigations, has almost nothing to do with broad questions of policy and everything to do with probing for weak spots in Obama's armor. The fact that the assault has been led by John McCain, the GOP's most respected spokesman on foreign affairs, only makes its triviality more appalling. McCain seems to have an Ahab-like obsession with Obama, or at least with Obama-as-commander in chief. Benghazi is his harpoon.

The hullaballoo over Benghazi has proved embarrassing even to serious conservatives. Gary Schmitt, a national security expert at AEI, agrees that very few Republicans now care about either foreign policy or Congress's role in shaping it. And he acknowledges that McCain and others have drawn no attention to what he himself considers the deep story on Benghazi: Obama's unwillingness to shoulder the burden of "nation-building and deep engagement" in the Middle East, his self-evident wish to put the whole mess behind him, and the cold shoulder he has turned to the insurgents in Syria. "There should be a debate about whether we're going to let Iraq define policy for the next 20 years," Schmitt says. "But nobody seems to be joining in that debate."

Presidents need to be pushed back by an active, if not obstreperous, Congress -- a fact that Democrats learned only after years of timidly acquiescing to Bush's Global War On Terror. Today's congressional Republicans will do almost anything they can to make President Obama fail, but they can't be bothered to devise a practical alternative to his policies, foreign or domestic.

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