Remember when the left excoriated President George W. Bush for bringing up Sept. 11 in his reelection campaign? There was something unseemly about referring to his finest hour, I suppose. It was rubbish, but when it comes to politicizing foreign policy, nothing in my lifetime trumps the president’s Wednesday-night speech. Robert Kagan said it best:
The entire military leadership believes the president’s decision is a mistake, and especially the decision to withdraw the remainder of the surge forces by September 2012. They will soldier on and do their best, but as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, put it, in characteristic understatement, they believe the decision will increase the risk to the troops and increase the chance that the mission will not succeed. It bears repeating that the deadline imposed by the president has nothing to do with military or strategic calculation. It has everything to do with an electoral calculation. President Obama wants those troops out two months before Americans go to the voting booth.
This may prove a disastrous political calculation, too, however. If the war is going badly in the summer and fall of 2012, it will be because of the decision the president made this week. Everyone will know he did it against the advice of his commanders. Everyone will know he did it for political reasons. So if the war is going badly a year from now, whom do you think the American people will blame? There will still be 70,000 American troops in Afghanistan, but as part of a losing effort. Will Americans reward Obama at the polls under those circumstances?
Put differently, it is one thing to bring up your foreign policy and national security credentials in a campaign (or the other guy’s shortcomings) and quite another to let an election drive war policy. The former is not only unobjectionable, it is an essential part of the democratic process in which candidates must be held accountable for their positions. That latter is a violation of the president’s obligations as commander in chief.
Even if the president and his hackery don’t believe it is morally reprehensible to allow elections to determine war strategy, certainly they must realize the risk involved. And that raises yet another question: What kind of president will roll the dice in such a fashion, risking the country’s national security and the lives of Americans? Maybe the military can pull this off, but why should the president willingly diminish their odds of success?
That brings us to the responses of the presidential contenders. It’s time for bold colors and clear talk. No pastels. If a presidential candidate agrees with Kagan’s assessment, he or she should call the president out and articulate why he is behaving recklessly, why the September 2012 election date is the sure sign of the war’s politicization, and why the president’s predilection for half-measures is disastrous. Now is not the time to nod to the “nation building at home” crowd. The candidates need not make excuses for proposing adequate spending to support our troops and our Defense Department more broadly.
In short, national security should and must be the part of any presidential contest. That includes Israel (sorry, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz), Russian reset and the management of wars in Libya and Afghanistan. Republican challengers should not be timid about drawing sharp contrasts; Obama’s mishandling of these and other foreign policy issues is one of the best reasons voters will have to get rid of him.