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Hello, I Must Be Going: Obama’s Afghan decision that wasn't

On the morning of September 11, 2001, the front page of the New York Times contained stories on school dress codes, violence between Israelis and Palestinians, the struggling U.S. economy, stem cells, nuclear smuggling, and morning television. 

Which is to say history is what happens when you are looking in the other direction.

That's not to suggest that the lead story in the newspaper is never the most important story of the day. It is however to urge we approach "news" with considerable caution. What seems newsworthy (Woods-Uchitel) is (the Salahis) often (Going Rogue) just a reflection of conventional wisdom about what's important and ignores other minor factors like history or the fact that people tend to want to read about salacious crap or journalists like to write about things that are easy to caricature politically. As with food we tend to be drawn to the fast, easy or tasty without really much consideration of what we really need.

So it is with the Afghanistan story. Now, it's hard to dismiss any presidential decision that will put over 100,000 American troops at risk as being unnewsworthy.  But it is undeniable that most of the coverage misses the bigger point: Afghanistan is a costly distraction for the president, the military, and reporters on the lookout for the big stories of our times.  It just barely makes the list of our Top 10 Concerns in the Region and would be unlikely to make the list of our Top 20 or 25 National Concerns overall. At least that would certainly be the case had we not made the decision to put so many of our sons and daughters at risk over there.

President Obama's speech seems brilliantly conceived to mesmerize the punditsphere thanks to what will either be seen by supporters as its balance or by its detractors as its compromises. (It's the Certs approach to speech writing: it's both a breath mint and a candy mint -- both an escalation and an exit, an effort to be tough with and to support the Afghan government, to strengthen institutions but not to do "nation building", to make the war about Afghanistan and about Pakistan, to support the military and to support the critics of the war.) But what all that masks is that every minute further the president is focused on Afghanistan and every dollar further we spend there is withdrawn from some other account, some other higher priority.

Let's just take the Middle East to illustrate the point. We begin, of course, with the fact that Afghanistan is not even the biggest challenge we face in AfPak. (That would be Pak, in case you haven't had your coffee yet.) 

In fact here's a handy list you can argue about around the water cooler, the biggest challenges America faces in the Middle East in terms of the broader consequences associated with the problem:

  1. Dependence on Oil from the Middle East
  2. Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction, Exhibit A: Pakistan (includes potential for loose nukes or conflict with India)
  3. Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction, Exhibit B: Iran
  4. Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction, Exhibit C: Likelihood of Regional Arms Race
  5. Growing Influence of Muslim Extremism in Countries from Egypt to Saudi
  6. Growing Loss of Influence in the Region to the Russians, the Chinese and others
  7. Deterioration in the Israeli-Palestinian Situation (Could include further conflict there or even Israeli action against Iran)
  8. Failure of the "American Experiment" in Iraq
  9. Consequences Internationally and Regionally of Economic Failures in the Gulf (...watch Greece, Russia, and others carefully on this front...)
  10. Afghanistan

And the only reason the decline of the dollar and the fiscal burdens on the U.S. economy that will severely limit our ability to act in the region are not on the list is that they seem very domestic ... but they would rank near the top otherwise. And as I noted before they are linked to the host of other issues domestic and international which actually outrank the Middle East (hard though that may be to believe to all our friends from all those lobbies, think tanks, and government contractors out there.)

This misplaced focus is revealed especially effectively in the regional context thanks to the juxtaposition of the final stages of this "Afghan decision" (and don't delude yourself into believing this is the last such "decision" or that the new policies will go very far toward resolving the core issues associated with stabilizing that country or getting out) with the recent announcement by the Iranians to proceed with plans to build 10 nuclear enrichment facilities. Whether or not they are capable of doing this, by now it should be quite clear that Iran has adopted a stance that virtually every one of America's enemies in the world has adopted during the past year. They have challenged us to demonstrate that we will simply not confront them in any effective way. 

Call it Iraq fatigue, blame it on the economic crisis at home, call it a propensity for dithering, call it a learning curve, the primary message the Obama Administration has sent to the world this year is an unintended variation on the one they intended to send: this administration really is different from that of George W. Bush. On international matters, Bush acted without thinking whereas until this week, it seemed, Obama thought without acting. Given the developments of the past few days, it seems the president has now become adept at thinking and then giving the illusion of action while actually compromising many of the benefits of decisiveness away. For example, while committing the troops must be seen as a kind of an action, it is presented as a double negative thanks to the escalation-exit strategy structure. It's what Groucho Marx might have called the "Hello, I must be going" approach.

And the Iran problem illustrates the consequences of focusing elsewhere (although it is just one such example.) Because thanks to Bush's erroneous decision to focus on Iraq and Obama's premature (last Spring) decision to move his chips to Afghanistan -- thanks to their political and economic costs -- the United States has found it ever more difficult to credibly suggest to Iran that there will be any kind of negative consequences to their move toward becoming a nuclear power. And giving the bomb to the world's largest state sponsor of terror is almost certainly a much greater threat than anything we might see in either Afghanistan or Iraq. (Admittedly, Pakistan poses a similar problem ... and for my money, Pakistan and Iran are the places we ought to be focusing the most of our energy and efforts.) In fact, I sometimes wonder who is pulling the strings for the Iranians in the U.S. government because almost every action we have taken in the past decade or so seems to have inadvertently benefitted them or at least made it harder for us to influence them.

In the end, I'm going to cling to optimism and hope that Obama's decision produces the best possible outcome, the one he and his team clearly are hoping for: a few strong blows against al Qaeda and the Taliban, some measurable stabilization and an exit. Because history is happening elsewhere and as long as we are distracted with wars like this, we raise the likelihood that it will be happening to us rather than that we will have a constructive role in shaping it.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

David Rothkopf

The choice

Apparently, next Tuesday President Obama is going to announce his policy on Afghanistan. According to reports, he will proceed with sending an additional thirty-something thousand more troops to that country. A recent analysis put the cost per soldier on the ground at $1 million. (The military disputes this saying it is more like half that.) That means, 30,000 troops is a cost of $30 billion.

On Sunday's Meet the Press, Dianne Feinstein said that $1 billion invested in infrastructure produced 40,000 jobs. That means that if the $30 billion were invested in infrastructure, not only would it enhance American competitiveness -- the quality of lives of Americans and the strength of our economy -- it would also produce 1.2 million jobs. Oh, and of course, it would not be a cost item, it would be an investment item (even though our antiquated government accounting system still does not include a capital budget as it should). Say Feinstein is wrong about her math or the military number about the cost of each soldier is right, it still seems fair to conclude that the price of what we might spend escalating our involvement in Afghanistan would produce if invested in critical U.S. infrastructure as many jobs as the administration claims were created or saved by the stimulus package. And what if that infrastructure made America more energy efficient and less dependent on oil from our enemies in the Middle East?

That's the choice Obama would be making with this troop commitment. In a nation ... or any enterprise ... with limited resources, everything is about asset allocation. And there is absolutely no credible argument that can be made that could conclude that spending $30 billion in Afghanistan is better for America ... or enhances our national security more ... than spending it in the United States.

Today's Washington Post carries a story saying that 34.5 percent of young African American men are unemployed. That number, like all such numbers, almost certainly understates the problem. That is not an economic challenge. That is a failure of our system and a wound to our society that makes anything that terrorists could do to us pale by comparison. It is time we started to understand and address the real threats we face.

MANPREET ROMANA/AFP/Getty Images