Feel­ing lib­er­als’ frus­tra­tion

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

We can all agree that the re­cent July 4 hol­i­day was not par­tic­u­larly fes­tive, given the grim tid­ings on all fronts. But per­haps the un­hap­pi­est Amer­i­cans these days are the an­ti­war lib­eral Democrats who voted with en­thu­si­asm for Barack Obama, only to find him teth­ered to a pro­tracted war in a re­mote re­gion that for two mil­len­nia has foiled vir­tu­ally ev­ery for­eign invader. Even Alexan­der the Great had to flee with an ar­row in his leg.

If Ge­orge W. Bush were still in of­fice and pre­sid­ing over the same cir­cum­stances in Afghanistan — with Western al­lies such as Canada pulling out their troops; with U.S. ca­su­al­ties on the rise; with re­silient in­sur­gents be­dev­il­ing our forces; with a U.S. nation-build­ing ef­fort held hostage by a cor­rupt host govern­ment that lacks grass­roots cred­i­bil­ity; with a fun­gi­ble with­drawal dead­line; with the prospect of un­told bil­lions of dol­lars be­ing poured into an open-ended oc­cu­pa­tion — you can bet that lib­er­als would be vo­cally apoplec­tic.

But with Obama on the hot seat, they’re stuck. Even though Obama is ba­si­cally trapped in an un­winnable war, even though he’s us­ing Bush­s­peak to talk about all of the “progress” we’ve sup­pos­edly made in Afghanistan, lib­er­als don’t want to make his po­lit­i­cal life more mis­er­able than it al­ready is. So mostly they fume about their pow­er­less­ness.

Oc­ca­sion­ally they do voice their con­cerns, while rec­og­niz­ing that their ef­forts are all in vain. Last Thurs­day night, 153 House Democrats voted for a los­ing amend­ment that would have re­quired Obama to set a dead­line for the with­drawal of all troops; in the words of one lib­eral con­gress­man, New York’s Jer­rold Nadler, “Ev­ery dol­lar we spend in Afghanistan, ev­ery life we waste there, is a waste. An in­tel­li­gent pol­icy is not to try to re­make the coun­try that no­body since Genghis Khan has man­aged to con­quer. ... What ar­ro­gance gives us the right to as­sume that we can suc­ceed where the Moguls, the Bri­tish and the Sovi­ets have failed?”

And a few left-lean­ing jour­nals have en­tered the fray. What’s most note­wor­thy about the now-fa­mous Rolling Stone story is not its de­pic­tion of Gen. Stan­ley McChrys­tal’s trash-talk­ers, but, rather, its dili­gent ex­pose of a war go­ing badly — as ac­knowl­edged by McChrys­tal’s own peo­ple. As a top McChrys­tal ad­viser said (in a quote that the Obama White House didn’t try to re­fute), “If Amer­i­cans pulled back and started pay­ing at­ten­tion to this war, it would be­come even less pop­u­lar.”

But, for the most part, fer­vent lib­eral crit­i­cism of Obama has been spo­radic or muted. Lib­er­als rec­og­nize that they don’t have the num­bers. In Washington — as ev­i­denced by the House’s de­ci­sion to OK the next round of war fund­ing — Obama’s war is broadly sup­ported by GOP law­mak­ers (who ac­tu­ally don’t think he’s hawk­ish enough) and by mod­er­ate and con­ser­va­tive Democrats who don’t want the vot­ers back home to think that they’re “soft” on ter­ror­ism or dis­re­spect­ful to the troops.

Ac­tu­ally, lib­er­als have been rel­a­tively qui­es­cent for a slew of rea­sons. For starters, they have the same war fa­tigue that af­flicts most other Amer­i­cans. Afghanistan (now of­fi­cially the long­est war in U.S. his­tory) and Iraq are sim­ply a drag to con­tem­plate; it’s eas­ier to just tune them out, to not even pa­tron­ize the out­pour­ing of movies that de­pict the pain. And it’s more fun to de­bate who should be danc­ing with the stars than whether we should be launch­ing a spring or au­tumn of­fen­sive in Kan­da­har.

Lib­er­als have been seething about Obama’s flex­i­ble prom­ise to be­gin troop with­drawals in July 2011 — the pres­i­dent won’t say whether the pace will be fast or slow, and he has mocked those who have an “ob­ses­sion” with the timetable — but, truth be told, they haven’t made a co­her­ent case for a smart al­ter­na­tive pol­icy. That’s prob­a­bly be­cause there are so few al­ter­na­tives. What hap­pens if we leave Afghanistan on our timetable, and the ter­ror­ists hun­kered down in Pak­istan take the op­por­tu­nity to set up shop again? Lib­er­als are lament­ing what they call “open-ended war,” but how do they pro­pose to close Afghanistan to the bad guys?

The bot­tom line is that they’re locked into this war, just like Obama. For most of the past decade, and es­pe­cially when Bush was fix­ated on Iraq, the lib­eral com­plaint was that Amer­ica was rush­ing to avenge 9/11 by in­vad­ing the wrong coun­try. Lib­er­als, ea­ger to demon­strate that they, too, be­lieved in the ap­pli­ca­tion of mil­i­tary force, saw Afghanistan as the right place for a just war — a chance not merely to de­feat al Qaeda on the bat­tle­field, but to bring hu­man­i­tar­ian aid to peo­ple (es­pe­cially the women) who suf­fered hu­man rights abuses at the hands of the Tal­iban.

In­deed, can­di­date Obama was quite clear about his plans for a wider war in Afghanistan. Dur­ing a CBS in­ter­view in July 2008, he said: “I think one of the biggest mis­takes we’ve made strate­gi­cally af­ter 9/11 was to fail to fin­ish the job (in Afghanistan), fo­cus our at­ten­tion there. We got dis­tracted by Iraq.” He said, with re­spect to Afghanistan: “For at least a year now, I have called for two ad­di­tional bri­gades, per­haps three” — in other words, as many as 15,000 new sol­diers. And that au­tumn, dur­ing his first de­bate with John McCain, he said: “We have seen Afghanistan worsen, de­te­ri­o­rate. We need more troops there. We need more re­sources there.”

Did lib­er­als not hear what he was say­ing? Maybe they fig­ured that he had to say those things about Afghanistan to en­sure that he wasn’t per­ceived as a Demo­cratic softy; hav­ing in­vested in his cam­paign, lib­er­als may have seen his stance as noth­ing more than shrewd pol­i­tics. Mostly, I sus­pect that when he at­tacked the Iraq war and got hawk­ish about Afghanistan, what lib­er­als ac­tu­ally heard in their heads was sim­ply this: “I’m not a dummy like Ge­orge W. Bush.”

Nev­er­the­less, a wider war in Afghanistan was a key fea­ture of the “change” that lib­er­als voted for, even if they chose not to see it at the time. The im­me­di­ate po­lit­i­cal dan­ger for Obama, how­ever, is that the left’s un­happy qui­etude might fur­ther de­press Demo­cratic turnout in the Novem­ber midterm elec­tions. With apolo­gies to Alexan­der the Great, this dearth of en­thu­si­asm could be the next ar­row in the pres­i­dent’s leg.

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