Mr. Obama's War?

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Sunday, May 17, 2009

PRESIDENT OBAMA'S clashes with the liberal base of his party are the kind of sporting event that Washington loves. But what Mr. Obama is confronting is less his party and more a stubborn reality that many in his party are unwilling to accept: There are forces in the world that continue to wage war against the United States and its allies, whether or not the United States wants to acknowledge that war.

Mr. Obama's recent decisions on paying for Afghanistan, reviving military tribunals and withholding photos of detainee abuse, among others, all reflect this reality. Although we disagreed with his conclusion on the photos, we sympathize with his concern that it might harm Americans fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. His announcement Friday that he had reversed his opposition to trying some enemy detainees in military commissions reflects, again, the fact of a nation at war; the federal courts will not be the proper venue for every al-Qaeda member captured by U.S. forces. (In a separate editorial we offer some views on how to improve the commissions further.) His commitment to fighting al-Qaeda and its allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan recognizes that pretending a threat does not exist will only increase the danger to America.

That's what is worrying about the modest but gathering opposition to Mr. Obama's policies within his party. Rep. Donna F. Edwards (D-Md.), who represents parts of Montgomery and Prince George's counties, was one of 51 Democrats to vote against funding for the Afghan war on Thursday. In a statement, Ms. Edwards hailed "the passion and commitment of our servicemen and women" that she witnessed on a recent trip to the embattled nation as well as "the commitment and courage of Afghan women to build a future for their country." But Ms. Edwards said that she could not support funding, because Mr. Obama lacks "a strategy for leaving Afghanistan." In a similar vein, Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), chairman of the Appropriations Committee, told the New York Times that he would give Mr. Obama's strategy one year to work before moving into opposition.

Mr. Obama understands that the only safe strategy for leaving Afghanistan is to beat back radical Islamist forces and build Afghan capacity to continue that fight. It's an effort that will require soldiers and civilians, military battles and economic development. Of course it will take more than a year; Gen. David H. Petraeus, who oversees the military effort, has been entirely candid about that.

What's discouraging is how quickly many Americans seem to forget the peril of half-finishing wars. Once before this country abandoned the battlefield in central Asia; Osama bin Laden moved into the vacuum. Today, he and like-minded terrorists continue to conspire in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen and elsewhere. Confronted by this unpleasant truth and the difficult challenge it poses, too many politicians lapse into the wishful-thinking school of making policy. We worry that there remains a touch of that in Mr. Obama's Iraq timetables and lean defense budget. But for the most part, having accepted the responsibility of keeping America safe, he has recognized that America can't always choose its enemies or its battlefields. His realism deserves support.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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