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What's Obama made of?

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 3, 2009; 9:57 AM

One year after he was elected, we're still asking questions about Barack Obama's character.

By we, I mean, of course, the people who pop off about politics for a living. But maybe some voters as well.

The test of the moment is Afghanistan, a no-good-choices dilemma that would surely loom as a turning point for any commander in chief. But supporters and skeptics alike also question Obama's gut when it comes to health care, gay rights and other issues where they say he remains undefined.

Perhaps this is the byproduct of the way he rocketed onto the national scene. We never really saw the former state senator make decisions until he was a presidential candidate. But it also may reflect Obama's cool, consensus-building style, his split-the-difference approach, so that in the end we're left wondering: What is he willing to fight for? Why did he let Congress write the health bill? If Afghanistan is the good war, why the hesitation?

That's rather glib, of course. The Afghan war is eight years old. The government is, as they say in diplomatic circles, an unreliable partner. The society, built in part on the opium trade, is heavily tribal. Would another 40,000 troops make a difference? How about 140,000? Or does that amount to sacrificing more American lives with no realistic hope of success?

I don't mind a little dithering if Obama makes the right move. But as Tom Friedman says, how much domestic support will there be for a war that drags on several more years and requires growing numbers of troops? The question answers itself. And that is part of the president's dilemma.

David Brooks hits several of these notes in examining the looming decision on Afghanistan. He says he checked with a number of military experts:

"These people, who follow the war for a living, who spend their days in military circles both here and in Afghanistan, have no idea if President Obama is committed to this effort. They have no idea if he is willing to stick by his decisions, explain the war to the American people and persevere through good times and bad.

"Their first concerns are about Obama the man. They know he is intellectually sophisticated. They know he is capable of processing complicated arguments and weighing nuanced evidence.

"But they do not know if he possesses the trait that is more important than intellectual sophistication and, in fact, stands in tension with it. They do not know if he possesses tenacity, the ability to fixate on a simple conviction and grip it, viscerally and unflinchingly, through complexity and confusion. They do not know if he possesses the obstinacy that guided Lincoln and Churchill, and which must guide all war presidents to some degree. . . .

"So I guess the president's most important meeting is not the one with the Joint Chiefs and the cabinet secretaries. It's the one with the mirror, in which he looks for some firm conviction about whether Afghanistan is worthy of his full and unshakable commitment. If the president cannot find that core conviction, we should get out now. It would be shameful to deploy more troops only to withdraw them later. If he does find that conviction, then he should let us know, and fill the vacuum that is eroding the chances of success."

Salon Editor Joan Walsh tees off on the column:


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