Saturday, December 05, 2009

Obama's Afghan course: risk or risk management?

The Times has an in-depth reconstruction of Obama's exhaustive Afghan policy review -- and the alchemy Obama wrought on the options presented to him. The crux of the change he forced, recounted below, reminds me in particular of one key moment in the speech:
There was no consensus yet on troop numbers, however, so Mr. Obama called a smaller group of advisers together on Oct. 26 to finally press Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Gates. Mrs. Clinton made it clear that she was comfortable with General McChrystal’s request for 40,000 troops or something close to it; Mr. Gates also favored a big force.

Mr. Obama was leery. He had received a memo the day before from the Office of Management and Budget projecting that General McChrystal’s full 40,000-troop request on top of the existing deployment and reconstruction efforts would cost $1 trillion from 2010 to 2020, an adviser said. The president seemed in sticker shock, watching his domestic agenda vanishing in front of him. “This is a 10-year, trillion-dollar effort and does not match up with our interests,” he said.

Still, for the first time, he made it clear that he was ready to send more troops if a strategy could be found to ensure that it was not an endless war. He indicated that the Taliban had to be beaten back. “What do we need to break their momentum?” he asked.

Four days later, at a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Oct. 30, he emphasized the need for speed. “Why can’t I get the troops in faster?” he asked. If they were going to do this, he concluded, it only made sense to do this quickly, to have impact and keep the war from dragging on forever. “This is America’s war,” he said. “But I don’t want to make an open-ended commitment” (my emphasis).
Here is the part of Obama's speech that lays out the thinking behind this change of plan:
As President, I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests. And I must weigh all of the challenges that our nation faces. I don't have the luxury of committing to just one. Indeed, I'm mindful of the words of President Eisenhower, who -- in discussing our national security -- said, "Each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs."

Over the past several years, we have lost that balance. We've failed to appreciate the connection between our national security and our economy. In the wake of an economic crisis, too many of our neighbors and friends are out of work and struggle to pay the bills. Too many Americans are worried about the future facing our children. Meanwhile, competition within the global economy has grown more fierce. So we can't simply afford to ignore the price of these wars.

All told, by the time I took office the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan approached a trillion dollars. Going forward, I am committed to addressing these costs openly and honestly. Our new approach in Afghanistan is likely to cost us roughly $30 billion for the military this year, and I'll work closely with Congress to address these costs as we work to bring down our deficit.

But as we end the war in Iraq and transition to Afghan responsibility, we must rebuild our strength here at home. Our prosperity provides a foundation for our power. It pays for our military. It underwrites our diplomacy. It taps the potential of our people, and allows investment in new industry. And it will allow us to compete in this century as successfully as we did in the last. That's why our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended -- because the nation that I'm most interested in building is our own (my emphasis). 
Obama's new course in Afghanistan has been repeatedly referred to as a "huge risk."  But it is the most calculated of risks. It's risk management, a favorite concept of Gates' -- balancing the risk of a resurgent Taliban/al Qaeda and destabilized Pakistan with the risk of an economically exhausted and politically paralyzed United States.  I say "politically paralyzed" because if Obama cannot make substantive progress in the next few years mending the U.S. safety net, reversing income inequality and improving education, those tasks simply will not get done.  And if they don't get done, U.S. economic might will erode. And if that might erodes, we will be dependent for our security on rising powers.

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