Thursday, December 10, 2009

Morassistan Part I: Amateur Hour

All the good ones were already taken: Fuckedupistan, Whatthefuckistan, Ohfuckistan, We'refuckedistan, and so on. Therefore, in selecting a title for President Obama's latest no-win, no-way-out quagmire, I chose the name of a quagmire.

By the time I publish this, the president will likely have already given an earnest entreaty to the American public, outlining his administration's intentions and expectations for the invasion-turned-conflict-turned-war-turned-occupation-turned-crisis in Central Asia.

It's yet another perilous imbroglio for Obama, another toxic, stench-ridden carcass left behind by the most inept presidential administration in U.S. history that promises consequences global, historic, and possibly disastrous.

And it will likely be Obama's undoing.

That it's unfair to assess a first-term president whom, upon assuming office, was instantly saddled with a series of potentially cataclysmic conundrums - the global financial crisis, health care reform, a surge of violence in Iraq, a nuclear Iran, global warming, and Afghanistan-Pakistan - is beside the point. An individual with Obama's intelligence and perspicacity had to have realized that his decisions on these monumental issues would be fraught with indefinite outcomes, even in the most optimistic of scenarios. Or didn't he?

In addressing each of them, he's backtracked, preemptively compromised, and receded into the background, leaving lesser talents to fill the temporary progressive leadership vacuum. (Even the staunchest of Democrats have, by this stage, heard enough Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi sound bytes to wonder if their Green Party card from Nader's 2000 presidential push is a.) still valid and b.) still crammed inside that old O.P. velcro wallet, amidst the endless flotsam of a cluttered glove compartment.)

It wasn't supposed to be like this. This was our guy, a visionary with the perfect mix of thoughtfulness, guile, and geopolitical aptitude to actually fix things - a president with the intellectual wherewithal and intestinal fortitude to bolster America's moral standing and to assess crucial situations based on factual evidence and probable outcomes rather than political expediency or a love of Christ. For once.

But, as major office holders often do, Obama has become one of them, a mushy-middle talking point machine of the status quo. And like promising presidents before him, who sweep into office, crested upon a wave of idealism, optimism, and promises, Obama's ambitious agenda has been mutated by the realities of existing at the eye of every political storm in Washington, storms that L.B.J., Reagan, and Clinton used to their advantage but that men like Carter and Bush Sr. were ill-equiped to endure.

Nevertheless, in the final analysis, it is Obama and Obama alone who will be held fully accountable. For all of it.

In a more perfect world, Obama would've had more than a nanosecond to exhale following his tour de force, goosebump-producing, crush-inducing inauguration speech. Using his overwhelming popularity as a rallying point for supporters and a catalyst for a new era of progressive legislation, conservatives would've had little choice but to slink into the background (as they initially did), and Blue Dogs, with their ties to Big Oil, Big Pharma and Big Insurance, would've been forced to the left lest they face the prospect of irrelevance.

Consequently, I often wonder: What if instead of having to deal with all the defining crises of our generation from the outset, Obama had the chance to gain some political capital by first addressing less pressing issues?

Here's the first draft of your speech on the importance of fiber in a healthy diet, Mr President!

Here's your Stay in School speech, Mr. President: You're up right after Jay-Z and before the cast from "Stomp."

Don't forget your monogrammed yarmulke for the Tolerance Summit at Temple Beth Hillel, Mr. President!

Right over here, Mr. President, beside the shelter puppy and the formerly abandoned-in-a-Nike-shoe-box 3-legged kitten!

In the sage words of Billy Joel, it's just a fantasy.

Instead, with his hand forced tonight, Obama will futilely articulate his plan for the crisis of the moment. He will offer vague objectives and occasionally speak in abstractions, as a leader must when discussing an eight-year conundrum that has revealed a monumental dearth of preparation, aptitude, and follow-through on the part of highly-touted military advisors, past and present. He will not mention that it has lasted longer in duration than World War II or that it has already rung up a $300 billion tab. He won't mention the painfully obvious similarities to Vietnam or that even some of his closest advisors believe that it is a war that is un-winnable (or, even beyond that, one that's not worth winning).

He will, however, convey the following:

1. We must prevail in Afghanistan (whatever that means), lest it become a safe haven for Al Qaeda (which has long since departed); victory in Afghanistan means a safer, more secure America.

2. Part of the strategy for winning in Afghanistan will entail the training of Afghani military personnel. This will take time, commitment, and will require a shift in mindset among Afghani troops and military officials.

3. A "surge" of at least 30,000 additional U.S. troops will be necessary to engage "trouble spots" in mostly Southern Afghanistan's Helmond Province and the country's population centers.

3. Our commitment to Afghanistan will not be open-ended (no, really, we mean it this time).

4. Pakistan better stop playing grab-ass with the Taliban or else we're taking our ball and going home.

5. A series of platitudes to assure the American public that the deaths of servicemen and women will not be in vain, that the success of war is not measured in human casualties but in the triumph of freedom over tyranny (or some bullshit like that).

He'll say all of this and more. But it won't matter. He'll speak passionately, fluidly and forcefully; it won't matter. And he'll make numerous appeals that are alternately rational, intellectual, and visceral; but it won't matter. Because, in this world, there are disasters that can't be cleaned up, people that will never change, and riddles that aren't meant be solved. Afghanistan's one of them.

12/7 UPDATE: After listening to the West Point address, I turned out to be right regarding Obama's talking points, which proves only that I know how to read and retain information that other journalists (get paid to) research and write. One thing I overlooked, however, was the prospect of a timed troop withdrawal, a possibility I didn't think the president would have the gall to mention. But in his speech, Obama stated that a troop redeployment would commence, beginning in July of 2011 - a heartening announcement, to say the least.
"As commander-in-chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home," Obama said.
12/8 UPDATE: Never mind. Apparently, that whole troop timetable withdrawal thing that Obama outlined in his address - and that The New York Times echoed in the following day's above-the-fold front page headlines - will be contingent on too many moving parts to be of much consequence. From Monday's Times:
In a flurry of coordinated television interviews, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other top administration officials said that any troop pullout beginning in July 2011 would be slow and that Americans would only then be starting to transfer security responsibilities to Afghan forces under Mr. Obama's new plan...

..."We have strategic interests in South Asia that should not be measured in terms of finite times," said Gen. James L. Jones, the president's national security adviser, speaking on CNN's "State of the Union." "We're going to be in the region for a long time."
And now I'm really befuddled. Because, during his big West Point speech, Obama also said this:
"The absence of a timeframe for a transition would deny us any sense of urgency in working with the Afghan government."
And then this:
"This effort must be based on performance. The days of providing a blank check are over."
Which, while gratifying to hear, is evidently just more lip service being paid to the increasingly disillusioned American public. In fact, ever since Osama Bin Laden was eclipsed as America's boogyman-of-the-moment by Wall Street CEOs, the war has been devoid of any benchmarks or assessments whatsoever - which can occur in a senseless, bullshit war, er, I mean when the main objective remains mired in ambiguity and indecision. So if our occupation of Afghanistan can't be measured in terms of timetables, either (according to Jones, Gates, and Clinton), how will we ever know when we can leave? More from The Times:
During his recent inaugural address, Mr. Karzai said that Afghan forces would be able to take charge of securing Afghan cities within three years, and could take responsibility for the rest of the country within five years.
9/8 Update: Corrupt-to-the-marrow Afghan President - and former American puppet dictator - Hamid Karzai has announced that it'll take another 15-20 years for the country's military and police forces to be able to sustain themselves financially, logistically, and culturally. Defense Secretary Bob Gates agreed that it will be "some time before Afghanistan is able to sustain its security forces entirely on its own." Gates then added:
"Whether that is 15 or 20 years, we'll hope for accelerated economic development in Afghanistan."
And I'll hope for a pony who possesses a shock of silver fur through its mane and the power of song!

(Either way, neither is likely to happen and both will cost a shitload of cash. Admittedly, the pony might cost more. I still hope I get one.)

Then, on NPR's Morning Edition, after being pressed by the fearsome Steve Inskeep, the irrepressibly sanguine McChrystal finally conceded that it could take five years before Afghani forces are capable enough to handle securing their country without the U.S. military and NATO changing their diapers every ten minutes.

Five. Years. Minimum.

Why Obama insisted on announcing a hard withdrawal timetable in the first place was puzzling, unnecessary, and shockingly amateurish. Revealing his hand in such a naked way - and on such a critical issue - in front of a national audience was striking for a man who, a little over a year-and-a-half ago, emerged from a bruising primary battle with the Clinton political juggernaut, and then, six months later, elbowed his way past Republican slime machine with the wind of the world at his back.

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Stop the Inanity. by Brock Cohen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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