A Vain President, or a Weak One?
Americans don't like pushovers--especially pushover presidents.
Oct 19, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 05 • By FRED BARNES
George Will suggested last week that President Obama's self-referential speech on behalf of Chicago's bid for the 2016 Olympics may lead to his being known as the "vain" president. Maybe, but worse things have been said about a president and probably will be if Obama declines to send substantially more troops to Afghanistan and rejuvenate his counterinsurgency strategy. He'll be called a "weak" president. And the label will stick.
A weak president is vulnerable, politically and otherwise. In Jimmy Carter's case, being seen as weak in dealing with Iran and the Soviets was a major factor in his defeat by Ronald Reagan in 1980. Americans don't like pushovers, especially pushover presidents. Obama is at risk of becoming a pushover.
Afghanistan is his test. Public support for the war has fallen sharply this year, especially among Democrats. And Obama's liberal base is pushing him to rebuff General Stanley McChrystal, the commander in Afghanistan, and scale back the war effort. Reversing course on a critical issue of national security because of domestic politics--that's an act of pure weakness.
At the same time, Obama will create another problem for himself should he spurn McChrystal's request for up to 60,000 additional troops to carry out the very strategy the president adopted in March and reaffirmed as recently as August. Rejection will alienate the uniformed military, and they are more popular than the president. When the Pentagon is hostile territory, the president suffers.
A president with a more impressive record leading up to a pivotal decision on Afghanistan wouldn't be in such a perilous situation. But it's of Obama's own making. He has little margin for error. His record over nine months as president is at the heart of his problem. Three aspects in particular stand out.
The first actually goes back to the presidential campaign. Obama criticized President Bush's decision to invade Iraq, insisting it was the wrong war to fight. The right war, the good war, was in Afghanistan. This wasn't a fleeting distinction. It was a central point of his candidacy.
It raised a question: Was Obama's stand on Afghanistan merely a cynical device to make him look like a tough-minded foreign-policy strategist and up to the job of commander in chief? The answer appeared to be no when he adopted an aggressive counterinsurgency strategy in March. As it turns out, that decision was easy. Democrats were supportive. Crunch time on Afghanistan didn't come until last month when McChrystal reported that the war will be lost without more troops.
Deploying more soldiers will cost more money and could produce more casualties, and there's no telling how long the war will last. But prevailing in Afghanistan is what the Obama presidency is supposed to be about. If he flinches now, we'll know we were misled. Obama talks about defining issues. For him Afghanistan will be one, but not in the way he might have hoped.
The second aspect involves the choice facing the president between continued pursuit of his policy in Afghanistan, McChrystal-style, and concern for his political future. Infuriating his antiwar base would complicate his prospects for reelection in 2012, all the more so if the war lingers without exit in sight. Any president would worry about that.
The downside to letting personal political interests prevail is that Obama would look duplicitous and weak. He could offer high-sounding reasons for ratcheting down the war, but everyone would know the real reason--domestic politics.
A president who'd bucked his party from time to time could get away with this. But Obama's record is the opposite. As president, he's been subservient. He's yet to say no to congressional Democrats. He's carefully remained on the side of every liberal special interest. Yielding on Afghanistan fits this pattern of weakness. Caving again will underscore it.
The third aspect is his foreign policy. Had the president dramatically stiffened the effort to force Iran to give up its nuclear weapons program, had he recruited allies in this cause, had he gone ahead with the antimissile system in Poland and the Czech Republic over Vladimir Putin's objection, had he become a champion (rather than a critic) of America's interests in the world--then, the situation would be quite different.
But Obama's foreign policy has been one of complaisance. He's apologized, deferred, and backed down. Changing course in Afghanistan, under pressure, would be viewed as another instance of presidential lack of resolve. According to an old sports adage, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Obama hasn't.