In the Arena

Rebalancing Act

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Barack Obama’s decision  to think carefully about the situation in Afghanistan before he sends more troops there is very good news. It shows a Commander-in-Chief unwilling to do what George W. Bush did–defer to others, first Dick Cheney, then David Petraeus, when it comes to making the most essential decisions that a President can make. It is part of a larger process that has been going on behind the scenes, the rebalancing of U.S. foreign policy away from the Pentagon and toward both the White House (especially Jim Jones’ amped-up National Security Council) and the State Department. 

This is not to say that Obama shouldn’t send more troops to Afghanistan. He probably should. But there are delicate sequencing issues involved here. Can he send them to Kandahar and Helmand provinces, as planned, without dealing in some way with the Taliban high command, operating with impunity just across the border in Quetta, Pakistan? What news will Richard Holbrooke bring back from the region about possible reforms promised by the hapless and corrupt President Karzai? Is Karzai ready to cut loose his brother, who is neck deep in the opium traffic in Kandahar? How should U.S. troops respond to the poppy crop that will surround them in Helmand and Kandahar provinces? And a hundred similar questions…

It is becoming an Obama signature that he doesn’t deal with foreign policy issues in isolation–he doesn’t just look into Putin’s (or Musharraf’s, or Karzai’s) eyes and decide whether he can trust them. He sees the problems in context: what happens in Afghanistan has an impact on what happens in Pakistan, in Iran, with Russia and India, and vice versa. The disadvantage to this method is that it doesn’t yield quick decisions, a potential problem in times of crisis. The advantage is that it can yield smarter, more comprehensive decisions, and a more global sense of the challenges we face overseas. It is a fundamental, structural dismissal of the idea that America can simply go around doing what it wants in the world.  

I’ll have more to say about how the world is responding to this new way of doing business in my print column this week.

Righteous Canadian Anger: From commenter readinwritin, who is absolutely right 

And as a Canadian, can I mention that we have had troops in Afghanistan continually since this war started? We kept faith with America and took the tough assignments even when your own government lost its attention span and took half your army off to a different country pretty much for no reason. And we have continued to lose many more troops there (per capita) than the US. After all the blood we shed there for you–for your war, not ours–we will not get over you guys giving up and walking away from this. Sell a goddamn plane if you need the money for another 10,000 troops. Or better yet, cut the shocking and unbelievable waste in your own military industrial complex and put some boots on the ground.

The “solution” to Afghanistan, if there is one, will lie on both sides of the border–yet another, English-drawn blood-geyser–but those who think we can abandon the situation and leave Al Qaeda and its allies to fester–especially given the fragility of nuclear-armed Pakistan–are courting a major disaster. To those commenters who disagree, I would ask: What’s your solution to this problem?