President Obama’s announcement yesterday that 9,800 troops would remain in Afghanistan but would be gone by a date at the end of 2016 suggests, as one Capitol Hill Republican aide put it, that “they didn’t learn their mistake from 2009. Announcing your departure is foolish and emboldens the Taliban.”
Gary Schmitt of the American Enterprise Institute explains that this leaves to his successor the burden of the aftermath of the withdrawal, making the issue of whether to return troops (if need be) into a political campaign issue, not a responsible military decision.
This is one more reminder that Obama not only doesn’t learn from errors, but he also doesn’t think he’s erred. Ending our stay in Afghanistan regardless of the outcome has always been his objective. In that regard, Hillary Clinton — if not for her dependence on the left — could provide a concrete example that she is no Barack Obama.
When Obama first announced at West Point a surge of troops in Afghanistan, he insisted on a timetable for withdrawal of the surge forces. Conservative critics warned this would be interpreted as a sign of weakness and make the Afghanistan government even more suspicious of U.S. intentions. As objections to that announcement rose, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates were dispatched to the Hill to spin the president’s words.
Hillary Clinton had this exchange during her testimony to the Senate in early December 2009:
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): Do you believe if we set timetables or a policy to withdraw at a date certain , it would be seen by the extremists as a sign of weakness, the moderates would be disheartened and it would create a tremendous impediment to the moderate forces coming forward in Iraq ?
SEC’Y GATES: I think a specific timetable would give — would essentially tell them how long they have to wait until we’re gone.
SEC’Y CLINTON: We don’t want to send a signal to the insurgents, to the terrorists, that we are going to be out of here at some, you know, date certain. I think that would be like a green light to go ahead and just bide your time.
Gates and Clinton were right on the policy, but they didn’t accurately represent the president’s intent. He did want a hard and fast deadline, and no amount of spin was going to change that.
Obama now is convincing himself — after all this — that al-Qaeda is once again on “its heels.” Reza Jan of the American Enterprise Institute reminds us:
President Barack Obama told U.S. troops in Afghanistan on May 25, 2014 that the U.S. has “decimated the al Qaeda leadership in the tribal regions” of Pakistan. While conceding that the al Qaeda network elsewhere in the world poses an increasing threat to U.S. interests, the U.S. government frequently touts the progress it has made in neutering al Qaeda’s senior leadership in Pakistan — as it narrowly defines it. These talking points increasingly seem based on a picture of al Qaeda’s South Asian network that is at least several months out of date, however. They do not appear to account for al Qaeda’s well-known ability to repair damage to its network, that network’s improving position in Pakistan, or an apparent strategic pause in both U.S. and Pakistani operations against al Qaeda in the region. The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and all it entails, not only increases al Qaeda’s operating room in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but has already severely degraded the intelligence infrastructure that helped support the drone and covert operations campaign that contributed heavily towards the success now claimed by the president.
Does Hillary Clinton share in the president’s self-deception, and is she willing to say so? For example, she certainly now knows — if she didn’t in 2012 — how widely al-Qaeda has spread into North Africa.
You would think then that either now or in the 2016 campaign, if she runs, Clinton could point out that she’s no President Obama; she is savvier, more in-tune with the world and tougher, willing to show the United States has staying power. But whoops! That sure won’t fly with the left. The reminder that she was trying to push the president away from a drop-dead deadline is going to be a problem for her with the base.
And so it is with the rest of her tenure. She wanted to enter Libya’s civil war; Obama agreed to do so only belatedly and reluctantly. She wanted to intervene in Syria, but Obama refused. These positions actually are positive indications of her foreign policy instincts. But they are also the reason the left might go looking for a standard bearer that shares its revulsion at U.S. intervention.
Clinton must decide whether she will stick by the president, defend his policies and share the blame or, instead, try to carve out a separate identity and suffer the wrath of the right. The former becomes more problematic as the president’s record gets worse. As The Post editorial board put it, “[W]hat’s remarkable is that the results also have been consistent — consistently bad. Iraq has slid into something close to civil war, with al-Qaeda retaking territory that U.S. Marines once died to liberate. In Syria, al-Qaeda has carved out safe zones that senior U.S. officials warn will be used as staging grounds for attacks against Europe and the United States. Libya is falling apart, with Islamists, secularists, military and other factions battling for control.” Meanwhile, Iran is edging toward a nuclear weapons capability and Vladimir Putin is making a run at reconstructing a Russian empire. How much of this is Clinton really willing to defend?
The real Hillary Clinton, if there is such a thing, was, in her time at the State Department, in favor of intervening and showing staying power when U.S. interests were at stake. Is the Democratic base going to go along with that?