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Obama Right to Weigh Afghanistan Options

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By E.J. Dionne Jr.
Monday, October 5, 2009

At a White House dinner with a group of historians at the beginning of the summer, Robert Dallek, a shrewd student of both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, offered a chilling comment to President Obama.

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"In my judgment," he recalls saying, "war kills off great reform movements." The American record is pretty clear: World War I brought the Progressive Era to a close. When Franklin D. Roosevelt was waging World War II, he was candid in saying that "Dr. New Deal" had given way to "Dr. Win the War." Korea ended Harry Truman's Fair Deal, and Vietnam brought Lyndon Johnson's Great Society to an abrupt halt.

Dallek is not a pacifist, and he does not pretend that his observation settles the question against war in every case. Of the four he mentioned, I think World War II and Korea were certainly necessary fights.

But Dallek's point helps explain why Obama is right to have grave qualms about an extended commitment of many more American troops to Afghanistan. Obama was elected not to escalate a war but to end one. The change and hope he promised did not involve a vast new campaign to transform Afghanistan.

It's easy to get enraged over the mess in Afghanistan and with the voices insisting that Obama has no choice but to remedy it by going big and going long.

Too many of those who say that Obama is obligated to step up the pace in Afghanistan spent the Bush presidency neglecting that war because their main interest was in waging a new one in Iraq.

In his recent report to the president, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, noted repeatedly that the effort there had been "under-resourced." It sure would have been nice if we had settled Afghanistan before beating the drums of war in Iraq.

It's also enraging that those who insist on offsetting every penny spent to expand health coverage would never ask the Congressional Budget Office to score the costs of McChrystal's strategy. For the uninsured, they propose fiscal prudence. For war, they offer profligacy.

Yet rage is a poor guide to policy. The truth is that Obama has only bad choices in Afghanistan.

Obama has said over and over that the war in Afghanistan, unlike the war in Iraq, is necessary. "We are in Afghanistan to confront a common enemy that threatens the United States, our friends and our allies," he declared in March. He cannot walk away from that.

But while his March speech was sweeping in certain ways, he defined a limited core objective. "I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal," he said, "to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future." These are the words that will give Obama room to reconsider his policy.

McChrystal argued that the full counterinsurgency strategy he proposes demands that we "elevate the importance of governance" in Afghanistan, and, to his credit, he is brutally frank about its current dismal state.


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