ARLINGTON, VA —You read it here first: There is a 50-50 chance
that President Obama will not get his party’s nomination in 2012,
much less be re-elected, so grave have been his policy errors. Presidents
rarely escape the consequences of serious misjudgments.
Andrew Johnson came within a vote of being removed from office after
underestimating the power of the radical reconstructionists. Harry
Truman, after firing General MacArthur and trying to seize the steel
mills, decided not to run for re-election when his popularity fell
to 22 percent.
Lyndon Johnson made the same decision after it became clear his policies
in Vietnam were losing support. Richard Nixon, who overwhelmingly won
re-election in 1972, was forced to resign less than two years later
because he bungled his response to a third-rate burglary.
Jerry Ford never got a full term because he pardoned Nixon. Jimmy
Carter weathered a primary challenge by Ted Kennedy but still lost
re-election because few Americans thought he had the cojones to tackle
the Soviets, the mullahs, and the misery index. Bill Clinton was impeached
because in a priapic fever he choked on the definition of “is.” George
W. Bush destroyed his presidency in a fit of pique against Saddam Hussein.
Obama’s mistakes already make these precedential misjudgments
look like peccadilloes. By his own estimate, budget deficits in his
first term will exceed those of all of his predecessors combined. His
stimulus bill, which increasingly resembles a regurgitated cud of political
pork, is failing to stimulate. Unemployment continues to rise. The
value of the dollar is propped up only by China’s desire not
to give itself the shaft. His health care plan scares a majority of
the voters, and his progressive abandonment of the public option enrages
a majority of his left-leaning base.
Yep, a 50-50 chance Obama will be a lame duck after the 2010 mid-terms
sounds about right. But make that a 90-10 chance if Obama, on top of
all that, gets Afghanistan wrong and, like Lyndon Johnson, steps into
In May, Obama endorsed the Pentagon’s decision to replace its
commander in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, with General Stanley
McChrystal — the first time a four-star commander in a combat theater
has been fired since Truman fired MacArthur.
McChrystal has told Obama that the mission is in danger of failure
without more troops. His boss, David Petraeus of Iraq surge fame, has
gotten behind McChrystal’s demand. The pressure on Obama to go
along with the recommendations of his military commanders is undoubtedly
He should resist that pressure — not for the political reason of
getting his party’s nomination and getting re-elected but for
the good of the country.
McChrystal and Petraeus cannot be faulted. They are just doing their
job in the full light, doubtlessly, of the most up-to-date military
doctrine. Their professionalism is an essential element of the give
and take of our open decision making process which, in the time-honored
national tradition, postulates firm civilian control over those armed
It is the job of our elected politicians and the civilian officials
they appoint to assess the recommendations of military professionals
against the demands and probabilities of budget, politics, culture,
and history — in short, the overarching national interest.
Afghanistan is remote and rugged. It has a primitive agricultural
economy, a mainstay of which is the cultivation of poppies for the
production of heroin and morphine. It is ethnically divided among Pashtuns,
Tajiks, Hazaras, and other groups, and their tribal leaders are often
warlords. Virtually all adult Afghan males carry and know how to use
firearms. The government, now and far back into the mists of the past,
is irretrievably corrupt. There are 28 million Afghans, and the vast
majority of them despise the foreigners who come into their country
in vain attempts to order their affairs.
The British Empire suffered one of its worst military defeats in
19th-century Afghanistan. The Soviets left Afghanistan with their tails
between their legs.
A historian would expect Americans, perhaps more than any other nation,
to understand how it is possible for a small, relatively poor country
to inflict defeat on a world-class imperial power. That is precisely
what we did to the British Empire at the apex of its military might
and political prestige. That is what Vietnam did to us at the height
of our military might and political prestige.
There is a common factor in all these historical events. The Brits
and the Russians were fighting on Afghan soil. The Brits were fighting
on American soil. We were fighting on Vietnamese soil.
There is no magic or strange power in dirt. The force to be reckoned
with in each of these cases is the strong attachment of the inhabitants
to their own national dirt. In all history, there is no more hated
warrior, no soldier more worthy of a violent, bloody end, than the
one who is perceived as an invader or an occupier.
It makes absolutely no difference how those invading, occupying soldiers
perceive themselves. Sure, it will make them feel good if they can
honestly tell themselves that they are fighting a global war on terrorism,
or exporting democracy, or building a nation. But feeling good about
yourself and your mission will not make much difference if an AK-47
round sneaks through your body armor’s arm hole or just under
the edge of your helmet.
The folklore has it that Obama was prescient about the Iraq misadventure.
But he did not own the Iraq war. He will need all the prescience he
can muster in Afghanistan, which is all his.
The Unrepentant Traditionalist is copyright © 2009 by Frank
Creel and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation.
All rights reserved.
Frank Creel, Ph.D., a columnist and author, was an English teacher
in the Peace Corps in Turkey. He is fluent in the Turkish language
and in Arabic script.
See a complete biographical sketch.
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