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Does Obama Have the Backbone?

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Barack Obama's trip to Copenhagen to pitch Chicago for the Olympics would have been a dumb move whatever the outcome. But as it turned out (an airy dismissal would not be an unfair description), it poses some questions about his presidency that are way more important than the proper venue for synchronized swimming. The first, and to my mind most important, is whether Obama knows who he is.

This business of self-knowledge is no minor issue. It bears greatly on the single most crucial issue facing this young and untested president: Afghanistan. Already, we have his choice for Afghanistan commander, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, taking the measure of his commander in chief and publicly telling him what to do. This MacArthuresque star turn called for a Trumanesque response, but Obama offered nothing of the kind. Instead, he used McChrystal as a prop, adding a bit of four-star gravitas to that silly trip to Copenhagen by having the general meet with him there.

This is the president we now have: He inspires lots of affection but not a lot of awe. It is the latter, though, that matters most in international affairs, where the greatest and most gut-wrenching tests await Obama. If he remains consistent to his rhetoric of just seven weeks ago, he will send more troops to Afghanistan and more of them will die. "This is not a war of choice," he said. "This is a war of necessity. Those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again. If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al-Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans."

Obama could have gone further. Not only would the Taliban be restored, but the insurgency might consume Pakistan. If that happens, then a nuclear power could become a failed state -- Pakistan's pretty close to that now -- and atomic weapons could fall into the hands of terrorist organizations. India, just next door and with mighty antipathy for Muslim terrorism, could well act on its own. The bloodbath the British tried to limit in 1947 when they partitioned the subcontinent might well resume -- this time with nuclear weapons.

The stakes in Afghanistan are great. But they are not ours alone. Russia is nearby. So are China and Iran. So why Americans have to shed most of the blood for a Taliban-free Afghanistan is just one of the questions Obama will have to answer. Another is why Americans have to die for a set of possibilities that seem remote to most people.

America, after all, has little tolerance for loss of life. The killing of eight American soldiers in Afghanistan over the weekend was front-page news. Contrast that with the numbers from Vietnam -- 61 dead from a single battalion in a single 1967 battle. As for the Taliban fighters, they not only don't cherish life, they expend it freely in suicide bombings. It's difficult to envisage an American suicide bomber.

The war in Afghanistan is eminently more winnable than was Vietnam. The Taliban is far from universally liked or admired. Still, the war will require more than a significant commitment of troops and, of course, money. It will take presidential leadership, a consistent staying of the course -- an implacable confidence that the right choice has been made despite what can be steep costs. I am thinking now of Lyndon Johnson spending nights in the Situation Room, a personal anguish that belied the happy belief of antiwar demonstrators that the president was a war-mongering ogre.

Foreign policy realists question whether any effort in Afghanistan can succeed. Possibly they are right. The interventionists, if I may call them that, suggest the realists are being unrealistic -- that Afghanistan matters and it matters much more than Iraq or, before that, Vietnam ever did and that we can prevail. Possibly they are right.

But the ultimate in realism is for the president to gauge himself and who he is: Does he have the stomach and commitment for what is likely to continue to be an unpopular war? Will he send additional troops, but hedge by not sending enough -- so that the dying will be in vain? What does he believe, and will he ask Americans to die for it? Only he knows the answers to these questions. But based on his zigzagging so far and the suggestion from the Copenhagen trip that the somber seriousness of the presidency has yet to sink in, we have reason to wonder.

cohenr@washpost.com

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