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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The hope that we confessed

On Nov. 4, the nation marked the one-year anniversary of the election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States.

Today the nation observed another Veterans Day, the ninth since the invasion of Afghanistan, the seventh since the invasion of Iraq.

The conflation of these events is neither artificial nor overstated. Events on Election Day 2008 were the realization of a centuries-long hope that by empowering one leader to act on the pledges of the campaign, we’d also empower this nation to get back to its pledges, to return to its moral and ethical high ground — the values that symbolize what this country’s about.

This was the hope that we confessed on Election Day. Now, 53 weeks later, the president who had campaigned on the theme of change is imprisoned by the dilemma of whether to militarily continue the status quo of his ethically challenged predecessors.

The president who once saw the Afghan war as a “necessary” conflict faces the prospect of agreeing to fight that war without a credible Afghan government to assist in the effort.

The president who just won the Nobel Peace Prize is reportedly laying plans to ratchet up the war in Afghanistan.

The change millions of Americans voted for in November has, for many of them, been far less than expected. And as President Obama weighs his options in Afghanistan, the people who voted for him are only left with the prayer — maybe already too faint to be heard where it counts — that the military folly of the past won’t be visited on the future.

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The present has been bad enough. According to the iCasualties Web site, which keeps close track of U.S. and coalition casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, 288 American forces have died in Operation Enduring Freedom so far in 2009, already nearly twice the full-year 2008 fatality count of 155, and this year isn’t done yet.

The casualty count for Americans in Afghanistan has increased steadily every year since October 2001, when the war began. Military analysts are not hopeful. One, Christopher Preble, foreign policy studies director of the Cato Institute, didn’t mince words on Oct. 29: “We should be looking for ways to extricate ourselves militarily from Afghanistan, not excuses to dig a deeper hole.”

America’s dilemma of being a unprecedented military power in pursuit of ghosts was brilliantly distilled in the Nov. 6 New York Times by a lowly Afghan pharmacist:
“What have the Americans done in eight years?” asked Abdullah Wasay, 60, a pharmacist in Charikar, a market town about 25 miles north of Kabul, expressing a view typical of many here. “Americans are saying that with their planes they can see an egg 18 kilometers away, so why can’t they see the Taliban?”

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It’s rare when a president of the United States has the early opportunity — or has the opportunity thrust on him early — to make a policy decision that could define and shape the rest of his term. President Obama has already had more than one.

Earlier in the year, progressives actively campaigned for Obama’s Justice Department to more aggressively pursue prosecution of the bad actors in the case of U.S. Attorneys fired by Bush Attorney General Alberto Gonzales for politically partisan reasons. That same group of Obama loyalists also wanted the White House to call Bush administration officials to account for sanctioning use of torture of terrorism suspects in Iraq and at the Guantanamo facility.

To that point, it seemed, in the first heady weeks and months of Team Obama, the president wasn’t so much sidestepping these matters as attempting to put them in their rightful place, down the line, behind more pressing issues.

Now President Obama is in a box it’s not possible to think outside of. For this new and not-so-new president, the war in Afghanistan — the 800-pound guerrilla war that’s about to assume center stage in the foreign-policy debate — is the in-basket action item that will not be moved. For its potential to presage the future of his administration, to become possibly the defining action of his foreign policy, there is no more pressing issue than the Afghan War.

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If we’re to believe CBS News, staying there is already a done deal. CBS national security correspondent David Martin reported late Monday that President Obama plans to send four combat brigades to Afghanistan, as well as thousands of support troops. The term “brigade” is a somewhat numerically elastic term, depending on branch of service, and even nationality. But CBS reported that the 68,000 troops there now would be expected to increase to 100,000 by late 2012.

Obama’s supporters were already disheartened by his administration’s failure to judiciously address those previous Bush-era issues.

For those most ardent backers in the past of last summer, there’s fresh disappointment. For them, Obama’s apparently pending escalation of U.S. forces in Afghanistan looks like a willingness to subordinate his sturdiest political instincts, his soundest best-bang-for-the-buck economic judgment and the very basis for the Change meme that gained him the White House to the service of a war whose pursuit is increasingly ill-advised.

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New polling from NBC News and CNN suggest that there’s a split, at best, in general public opinion on the Afghan war. What’s not so indecisive: the core of younger Americans across lines of gender, race and ethnicity, who want no more U.S. troops sent to Afghanistan. In fact, according to a new poll from the Pew Research Center, support for the initial decision to invade Afghanistan, in October 2001, has dropped by 10 percentage points among voters 18 to 29 years old. The same hard core of Obama supporters who helped make last Nov. 4 the most memorable in our history.

Those same supporters, and other Americans besides, have expressed their opposition to further military intervention in Afghanistan — this after Obama committed an additional 21,000 troops earlier this year.

For them, if the CBS report is accurate and we’re just waiting for the president to tell us, those once-bedrock supporters will sigh, or maybe privately break down and cry, at having been let down once more; at not getting the resources they need at home because of a war half a planet away; at the prospect of the United States forgetting the past again, and being doomed to repeat it. Again.

Theirs was a hope that they confessed, firmly and without wavering, 53 weeks ago. But for many of those supporters, there’s no hope like thwarted hope. More often than not, that’s the galvanizing influence, the spark that drives people to the polls, to vote their convictions, on any given Election Day.

Image credits: Election night 2008: From MSNBC. Obama top: Unknown. Casualties chart: The Wall Street Journal.

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