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Obama's Goldilocks strategy on Afghanistan

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By E.J. Dionne Jr.
Thursday, December 3, 2009

President Obama has bought himself some time on Afghanistan and lived up to his promise to seek policies that fit into no one's philosophical pigeonholes. He has also split his own party and diminished the enthusiasm of his natural allies, yet earned himself no lasting credit with his domestic adversaries.

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By these measures, Obama's surge-and-wind-down strategy is both gutsy and politically risky, a view that defies depictions of Tuesday's address as a contrived effort to please everyone. There was calculation in the speech, but it had to do with winning support for his policy, not electoral advantage. In terms of helping the election chances of congressional Democrats next year, the speech was a net loser.

Obama was trying to identify middle ground by offering a Goldilocks strategy: neither too hawkish nor too dovish, but just right. He pointedly reassured doves that he had no interest in a "dramatic and open-ended escalation of our war effort," while insisting to hawks that "our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan." He argued that the only way to speed our departure from Afghanistan was to speed the entry of 30,000 troops now to "reverse the Taliban's momentum." In the Vietnam years, many spoke of a "win or get out" choice. Obama's is a "stop losing to get out" plan.

But those who seek the middle ground today are typically crushed. This is especially true in foreign policy debates, which were profoundly politicized during George W. Bush's presidency. Politics no longer stops at the water's edge; that's where it begins.

Obama spoke longingly of ending the "rancor and cynicism and partisanship that has in recent times poisoned our national discourse." In light of the reaction to his speech, one can only say: Good luck.

Even Democrats once interventionist in their foreign policy views have been turned off by the overreach of the Bush years. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman (D-Calif.) was revealing -- and honest -- when he told Politico before Obama's speech: "I'm not as prone to jumping into wars as I used to be."

What Obama said at West Point about Afghanistan would have been uncontroversial before the long occupation of Iraq. Now, half or more of Obama's own party wishes he would wind down the Afghan war. Congressional votes on funding the new surge are unlikely before spring because Democratic leaders, particularly in the House, know how much opposition is in their ranks.

But the GOP's response was tepid. Many Republicans welcomed the troop commitments but then moved quickly to the attack, especially on Obama's insistence that we could begin to withdraw forces by July 2011.

"If you tell the enemy when you're leaving, it emboldens your enemies and dispirits your friends," Sen. John McCain told CBS on Wednesday morning, encapsulating a common Republican critique. Others were annoyed at Obama's criticism of Bush for neglecting Afghanistan in favor of Iraq.

Note what's going on here: Obama's efforts to persuade enough skeptics -- especially in his own party -- by placing a limit on how long we will stay and by trying to separate Afghanistan from Iraq earned him only reproofs from the other party. Heads, Obama loses with the doves; tails, he loses with the hawks. There is not a large market for owls claiming the wisdom of the middle way.

Yet the paradox is that by absorbing all this political pain, Obama will succeed in his short-term goal of gathering sufficient support to keep the battle in Afghanistan going and give his surge a chance. If he's right that progress can be made quickly and that troops can begin to withdraw, political opposition will recede. If the policy fails or stalls, he will have hell to pay.

It helps Obama that Democrats are split not in two but in three: a small number of hawks who agree with his decision; a large number of doves who oppose it; and a sizable group uneasy with Obama's choice but respectful of how and why he made it. "God, I hope he's right" were the words I heard from several Democrats, expressing precisely the mixture of faith, hope and doubt that characterizes this politically decisive group.

These Democrats know that the politics of this are bad unless the policy turns out to be good. They are praying that Obama knows what he's doing. For now, they will grant him his year and a half.

ejdionne@washpost.com


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