Don’t Come Home, America
Jul 4, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 40 • By ROBERT KAGAN
The psychological effect of Obama’s announcement may be just as damaging. The tone of the speech, the war-weariness it exhibited, combined with the unexpectedly rapid drawdown, will convince everyone in the region, and everyone in the world, that the United States can’t wait to get out, regardless of the consequences. Afghan civilians who have to decide what’s safest, sticking with the Americans or giving in to the Taliban, will be increasingly unlikely to choose the Americans. Taliban fighters trying to decide whether it might be a good idea to lay down their weapons before being crushed by an inevitable American victory will now view that victory as anything but inevitable. Bad actors in Pakistan, who have always doubted America’s staying power, will now feel confident that we are leaving fast and will act accordingly. Our European allies, who were barely hanging on in Afghanistan in any case, will no doubt trip over themselves in a rush to the exits. They have “nation-building” to do at home, too.
And although this decision was clearly made for political reasons, the irony is that it is likely to backfire. If the war does not look like it is going well next spring and summer, as troops are being prematurely withdrawn, Obama will take the blame. Everyone will know that he overruled his military advisers to formulate this plan. Everyone will know he did it for political reasons. Obama will own it. And the thing is, there will still be 70,000 American troops in Afghanistan—only at that point, instead of being part of a winning effort, they could well be part of a losing effort. Oh, to be the Republican nominee in that scenario!
Which brings us to the Republicans. They have not all covered themselves in glory this week. Some have been stalwarts in opposing the president’s plan, and for the right reasons. But some have been cautious, evidently worrying about the same polls that Obama is worrying about.
That is a mistake. It is a mistake in the most fundamental sense that losing in Afghanistan is profoundly not in America’s interest, and every Republican has an obligation to place national interests above party and personal ambition. But it is also a political mistake. We know the conventional wisdom is that this election will be won on the economy. That may be mostly true, but we are confident that it is not entirely true. The next two years are going to continue to be dangerous times for the United States and for our friends and allies around the world. Indeed, they may be more dangerous than the past few years.
The Middle East is in turmoil. Yemen may be collapsing and could become a base for a very dangerous terrorist organization, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The United States may well have to use force to address that danger. Regimes in the Arab world are toppling, and it is unclear what will replace them. China grows stronger. Russia grows more authoritarian. Iran may be close to acquiring a nuclear weapon. We could go on.
The point is that 2012 will be an election about the economy, but it will also be an election about national security. The American people may tell pollsters they want to focus on domestic problems—they have said that many times in the past, as well—but they will also be looking to see who can be a reliable and strong commander in chief. Me-too-ing Obama or, worse, trying to outflank him on the dovish left will not serve any candidate well in the general election. National security until now has been a Republican advantage. To squander that advantage in these times of global danger would be worse than a blunder. It would be a crime.