Obama's Options

Lukewarm public support for the Afghan conflict could stop Obama from implementing McChrystal’s recommendations—and lose us the war in the process.

The problem of declining public support for America's wars has been chewed over extensively since Vietnam. Most prominent in the discussion was the need for an exit strategy before going to war, to convince the public that the government knew what it was doing and fighting would not be open-ended. More comforting, perhaps, was the notion-often unspoken-that wars had to be short since democracies can't sustain long wars, which served as a warning to governments to exercise caution. The Kosovo war produced a casualty-free outcome and added impetus to the notion that the United States, with its unmatched military capabilities, could fight quickly and successfully, and public opinion would not have much chance to get in the way. George W. Bush prepared the public for going to war but little else.

The sad fact is past rhetoric and analogies have been largely beside the point when it comes to Afghanistan. We have entered no war with an exit strategy unless getting out after victory is a strategy. The United States has shown that a democracy can fight a long war, indeed two of them at the same time-for seven years and counting. The reason, however, is not astute management of public opinion, but rather obviously the elimination of the draft and the creation of a professional military with superb abilities. Mr. Obama's recent efforts to raise public support for the Afghan war by calling it "a war of necessity," as opposed to a "war of choice," adds little. All wars essentially are wars of choice-how we choose to enter them, what we try to achieve, how we fight, how much we spend and how we end them.

Today's public discussion on the Afghan war often sounds familiar-the presumed costs and credibility to our international posture if we forsake "winning" the war, how the war can be won if we just do x, the lessons of Soviet failure in Afghanistan, the indispensability of Afghanistan in saving Pakistan, whether we can really do nation building, the adequacy of our strategy, etc. The public has difficulty sorting it all out, because there is little discussion marrying goals, strategy, and the ensuing material and human requirements needed to help them understand what our Afghan effort really entails.

The Obama administration sought to minimize public debate from the start and now, at least for the moment, tries to avoid anything that might hinder passage of a health-care bill. It initially got a pass from the Democratic Congress and the media from real scrutiny of its proposed efforts in Afghanistan. Rather than acknowledging the immensity of their plans -far bigger than Bush's, and with much greater American involvement-Obama has mostly discussed short-term requirements in the hope that activism, new and better faces, and some early progress would enable the administration to establish a basis for getting more funds next year and help deepen American commitment and determination. Most fundamentally, the White House stressed the threat to the homeland from al-Qaeda, emphasizing that the war served to protect our people from mortal danger.

That approach would likely work again for another year. We tend-not always-to listen to generals, and it is hard for the president or Congress to be unresponsive to General McChrystal's request for more troops (and a shift in the strategy of employing our forces). Nevertheless, whatever the president's persuasiveness, increasing American losses, allied discontent, the dismaying Afghan presidential elections, and growing differences over goals and strategy are producing an unhappy, skeptical public. The trend is clear but not uncontainable. It does serve to constrain choice, and, if it deepens, will ultimately undermine any sustained American military committmernt. Much will depend on the fruits of our efforts.

The administration faces a dilemma of candor. It has been reluctant to ask what it really wants for fear of making Afghanistan a bigger and more politically vulnerable issue. It is now being called upon to be more forthright: to make clear what it seeks to do in Afghanistan, what that will cost and how long it will likely take. Crudely, the administration can somehow moderate its objectives-and raise doubts about its original approach-or it can take greater political risk by putting in significantly more forces and resources, as McChrystal wants, supposedly making it more likely for the United States to achieve its stated objectives.

Or it can continue, as most democratic governments usually do, to add resources incrementally so as to better limit public opposition, while hoping the increase in men and materiel will be sufficient to produce some good things. To pick another option would likely produce an all-consuming fight within the administration and further weaken public support. In any event, by requiring benchmarks, Congress does not force a real examination of the administration's goals, strategy and the resources required-it doesn't want to. Rather, at this point, it too prefers in the end to allow the new president more time to proceed incrementally as he deems suitable.

Whatever way Obama chooses, the going will be tough and public support for the war will continue to decline.


Morton Abramowitz is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and a former assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research