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Get real on Afghanistan

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, November 28, 2009

The selection of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point for President Obama's announcement of his new Afghanistan war strategy is media manipulation worthy of Michael Deaver, the legendary image protector of Ronald Reagan. What better setting than an audience of military cadets to project Obama as the reluctant warrior and commander in chief who, because of circumstances not of his making, is forced to commit the nation's finest to a war not of his choosing?

Makes for a great visual, too.

It's also a good way for Obama to get his war message across to national security think-tankers who have been banging their spoons for escalation, to Republicans who demand that he give the generals what they want, and to conservatives who say he is a ditherer, not a doer.

Tuesday night's event should go down well with the cadets. But what about the millions of Americans across the country who will be tuned in?

Many will be older and grayer than the cadets, and they are past the point of being impressed by dramatic photo ops and symbolic poses. They don't want orchestration; they want answers.

That's certain to be true of jobless viewers. The nation's unemployment rate is at 10.2 percent, a 26-year high. These people will be waiting to hear Obama explain how adding to the $10 billion monthly price tag for Iraq and Afghanistan will help them find work. African American men, 17.1 percent of whom are unemployed, want a word from Obama on this.

The White House has said that every increase of 1,000 troops will cost $1 billion. So if the administration sends 34,000 more troops to Afghanistan, as rumored, that's an additional $34 billion.

"Where's it going to come from, Mr. President?" the unemployed and their families will want to know. Obama needs to address that question. This country has an accumulated debt of $12 trillion that is forecast to rise to $21 trillion in 10 years.

Picturesque events that help shape Obama's image as commander in chief can take him only so far. He needs to come down to eye level and explain his Afghanistan strategy to the people who must pay for this war: the salary and wage earners who struggle to buy food and pay their bills.

Yes, the administration will float bonds to bring in the cash to buy munitions, but that debt belongs to the American people, not to the White House.

The people all across our country -- not just Washington's political, military and media intelligentsia -- deserve a plausible explanation.

True, most of the folks who will watch on Tuesday are not schooled in military strategy and tactics. They aren't likely to have the erudition of civilian and military experts who toss around such terms as "asymmetric warfare" and "conventional force strategy."

But they heard the president tell Chinese students in Shanghai last week that "the greatest threat to the United States' security are the terrorist networks like al-Qaeda." And they are asking, "If that's so, why is Obama choosing Afghanistan as the place to declare America all-in?" Or to, as the president put it, "finish the job"?

They know that al-Qaeda is an international terrorist organization out to destroy the United States. The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the bombing of the World Trade Center, and the bombings of American embassies and the USS Cole all speak to that. They also know that al-Qaeda is waging global jihad, launching plots in Europe.

They want to know whether denying al-Qaeda a base in Afghanistan will secure America against attacks. That is what Obama, after weeks of study, seems to think. But what happens if, in the face of an U.S. escalation in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda moves its terrorist network to Pakistan or beyond? Will U.S. forces follow?

Washington's intelligentsia may know the answer. The rest of the country should know, too. Obama is accountable to the men and women who hired him, not to his war council, Washington think tanks or editorial pages.

And that gets us to a fear that is growing among some of the president's most ardent supporters: that Barack Obama, the fresh, think-outside-the-box leader brimming with energy and new ideas, has entered the White House and gone native.

Suspicion is spreading that Obama has lost some of the character that made him special; that he has taken on the ways of this town, thinking in conventional terms dictated by a brain trust and self-serving, entrenched Washington interests that make this city go 'round.

That development, if true, would be as disastrous to the Obama presidency as a military miscalculation.

kingc@washpost.com

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