The Case for the War

By replacing General McChrystal with Petraeus, President Obama did more than change Our Man in Kabul — in the face of a somewhat major threat, he ratified the military chain of command, with himself at the top, and preserved civilian control of the military for another day. There was never a danger that McChrystal would “march on Washington,” but such a cavalier attitude (RS original) towards civilian leadership, as one friend put it to me, “threatens to threaten” civilian control, and left uncured erodes the respect upon which the commander-in-chief’s power stands. Institutions like these never fall with a bang, but the process always begins with a nudge. Caesar felled the Roman Republic, sure, but he did it swinging Marius’ sword. Yesterday, Obama broke that sword.

Perhaps surprisingly, even the Republican Party agrees. Indeed, the only group upset with Obama’s handling of McChrystal’s ouster seems to be the far-left, with Andrew Sullivan at its head. In Petraeus’ new command, and despite Obama’s promise otherwise, Sullivan sees the seeds of a permanent war:

Those of us who hoped for some kind of winding down of the longest war in US history will almost certainly be disappointed now. David Petraeus is the real Pope of counter-insurgency and if he decides that he needs more troops and more time and more resources in Afghanistan next year, who is going to be able to gainsay him? That’s Thomas P. Barnett’s shrewd assessment. Obama’s pledge to start withdrawing troops in 2011 is now kaput. It won’t happen. I doubt it will happen in a second term either. Once Washington has decided to occupy a country, it will occupy it for ever. We are still, remember, in Germany! But Afghanistan? [. . . .]

It really is Vietnam – along with the crazier and crazier rationales for continuing it. But it is now re-starting in earnest ten years in, dwarfing Vietnam in scope and longevity. [. . . .]

This much we also know: Obama will run for re-election with far more troops in Afghanistan than Bush ever had – and a war and occupation stretching for ever into the future, with no realistic chance of success. Make no mistake: this is an imperialism of self-defense, a commitment to civilize even the least tractable culture on earth because Americans are too afraid of the consequences of withdrawal. And its deepest irony is that continuing this struggle will actually increase and multiply the terror threats we face – as it becomes once again a recruitment tool for Jihadists the world over.

There’s a lot wrong here — or, at least, we should hope there is. I don’t presume to know our chances for actually stabilizing Afghanistan, and I don’t think Sullivan can, either. But our mission’s difficulty doesn’t make Afghanistan like Vietnam. Afghanistan is not a proxy war against a nation-state and its puppetmaster, begun only to wound the latter. Whatever it has become, the conflict in Afghanistan began with a nobility of purpose (self-defense), and with the widespread support of the American people, both of which we lacked in Vietnam, and both of which improve our likelihood of success. Perhaps more importantly, nationbuilding in Afghanistan isn’t nationbuilding for its own sake, but in furtherance of the initial goal: displacement of state-sponsored terror in the region. This, again, conveys a clarity of purpose that we’ve lacked in other modern conflicts.

Nor is our continuing presence in Germany evidence that “once Washington has decided to occupy a country, it will occupy it for ever.” Our German bases, opened in worldwide war, and continued first at the request of a beleaguered ally, and then to cement a permanent alliance (NATO), present a fact pattern not likely to recur, and depend upon rationales that can’t be applied to Afghanistan. Obama may be continuing Bush’s war, but he’s discarded Bush’s Crusader-state mentality, and with it any philosophy capable of justifying permanent occupation.

All of this is to say that the war in Afghanistan remains conceptually defensible. Practically, it may be another story. But that kind of evaluation is above my pay grade, and above Sullivan’s, too. Deprived of conceptual objections, we, both as Americans and as progressives, should be wishing Petraeus well, especially because if he pulls this off, it’s one for the history books.

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