In the Arena

Perfect Pitch

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Vice President Joe Biden had an absolutely perfect response to Dick Cheney’s utterly predictable and entirely wrong foreign policy speech this week:

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. had a blunt response on Friday to the latest broadsides from former Vice President Dick Cheney: “Who cares?”

Exactly so. The national security policy pursued during George W. Bush’s first term–when Cheney was, arguably, President for Foreign Policy–was the worst, most embarrassing, most counter-productive, in American history. The Administration’s refusal to allow Hamid Karzai negotiate a deal with Mullah Omar–when the Taliban leader was at his weakest and suing for mercy in December 2001–arguably is the reason why we have the Afghan mess on our hands today.

But Cheney’s spectacular and lethal cluelessness exemplifies another phenomenon, one that plagues journalists including, on occasion, me…

That phenomenon is impatience, bolstered by a lack of knowledge. Diplomacy simply moves too slowly, on too many tracks, for the speed of latter-day journalism, especially cable news. Take this excellent example, reported by the ever-admirable Ahmed Rashid.

Rahm Emanuel’s television appearance last Sunday, in which he said that no decision could be made on more troops until the Afghan government resolved its electoral mess, was part of a coordinated effort to get Karzai to agree to a runoff election. And it worked, but not before a baloney-storm erupted among the wingers, criticizing the President and Emanuel for dithering about sending more troops. As soon as Karzai agreed to the runoff, a second message was sent by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates–plans were proceeding for the next stage of the war. The Emanuel-Gates statements were routinely described as “dueling” and, for a day or so, that’s exactly how it seemed: a slight breech between the Pentagon and the White House.

But it wasn’t. And Obama’s effort to formulate a new strategy for Afghanistan is, by all accounts, a coherent effort to incorporate four information streams–the military situation on the ground (the McChrystal stream); the military situation across the Pakistan border, where a major offensive is taking place that will have an impact on the situation in Afghanistan; the Afghan political stream; and the latest intelligence about the size, strength and intentions of Al Qaeda.

Once again, it is important to note that absolutely no such strategy review took place about Afghanistan during the Bush Administration. In fact, no basic policy review took place during the Bush Administration about Iraq, its war of choice, until 2006 when the decision was finally made to try counterinsurgency. Even more outrageous, no basic strategic review–aside from a riotously foolish bout of wishful thinking by Donald Rumsfeld–took place before the war in Iraq was launched. No American had a clue about what to do in Baghdad when we got there.

So, to hear Cheney attacking Obama now is the next thing to obscene. And to watch the neocon yackers blindly backing the 40,000 troop military option–without full knowledge of the four information streams the President has to coordinate–and attacking the President for “dithering” is laughably knee-jerk. But the rest of us have a responsibility as well to be patient, to allow the process to play out. My guess is that there are several additional developments necessary–will Karzai and Abdullah form a coalition and avoid the runoff? How will the Pakistanis fare in Waziristan?–before a final decision can be made.

Taking time to get it right was something Bush never did until it was too late. It’s disgraceful that Cheney, who should have the good sense to just go away, is criticizing the President for being more prudent about the expenditure of American lives than he ever was.