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What would Bush do?

POSTED: September 16, 2009 9:51 a.m.
If he wants to prevail in Afghanistan, Barack Obama needs a George W. Bush moment. He’ll have to ignore the polls, brush aside doubters in his own party and reinforce a failing war effort.
Bush did all that, and more, when he ordered the surge in Iraq in January 2007. He also had to buck his own military brass and almost the entirety of a foreign-policy establishment that considered the feckless recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton commission holy writ. He operated from a position of political weakness so debilitating, Lyndon Johnson might have identified with it in his final days.
Compared with those headwinds, Obama is experiencing a late-summer breeze on Afghanistan. He’s a new president in whom the American public hasn’t yet lost faith, even if he’s faded from his post-election heights. In a CBS poll, only 48 percent approve of Obama’s handling of Afghanistan. That’s nothing like the collective “enough” the public had exclaimed about the Iraq War prior to the surge.
But Obama will need three especially Bushian qualities if he is to spare his country a humiliating retreat or an under-resourced, inconclusive slog in Afghanistan: sincerity, perseverance and courage.
Bush risked his presidency on Iraq because of his heartfelt belief in its strategic importance. Obama sounds just as categorical about Afghanistan. If he believes it, he’ll make the tough calls. If not, he’ll be prone to Rumsfeldian half-measures that will ensure all our sacrifices are made on behalf of failure.
We’d be in even worse shape if Obama hadn’t already sent 21,000 additional troops earlier this year. The buzz among coalition commanders on the ground was that August would be a trying month — casualties would spike, and Americans back home would sour. So it has come to pass. If Obama approves another request for additional forces from Gen. Stanley McChrystal, it will mean even more casualties, as — for at least a period of time — the Taliban look as strong as ever.
Bush had to endure a similarly treacherous lag between our troops fighting their way to outposts among the population in Iraq, and the results in enhanced security. Obama, too, will have to ignore his most fervent supporters, who fear he’ll wreck his presidency in the Hindu Kush, and stomach poll numbers that will get worse.
If we withdrew, the Taliban would take over swaths of the country and would likely host al-Qaida again. Pakistan would feel pressure to return to embracing the Taliban fully as its proxy in a war that would become a free-for-all for Afghanistan’s neighbors. This would strengthen the hand of extremists within Pakistan at the same time our credibility would have sustained a devastating blow.
The war is far from lost. Kabul is relatively safe, certainly compared with the hellish extremity of Baghdad in 2006. The areas that are in the worst shape in the south are those in which we have had the fewest forces. The population doesn’t want a reprise of Taliban rule. If we could recover in an Iraq that had descended to Dante’s seventh circle, Afghanistan is salvageable with enough resources and time.
As he contemplates his next move, Obama should ask an unexpected question: “What would Bush do?”

Lowry is editor of the National Review.
 

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