Monday, September 24, 2012

Andrew Sullivan's vision for Obama is appealing. But what about Afghanistan?

Ever since November 2007, I have both enjoyed and caviled at Andrew Sullivan's heroic chronicles of the Obama presidency, which started as prophecy in November 2007.  That's the case with his latest Newsweek cover, which makes a pretty strong case that if re-elected Obama will have the chance to fulfill his stated ambition of being a "transformative" president in the Reagan mold --one who "changes the trajectory" of American politics, as he famously/infamously posited during the 2008 campaign.

So far, the rhythm  of Obama's tenure has indeed somewhat tracked Reagan's: two years of transformative legislation enacted in tough economic times; an approval rating that dipped low as unemployment broke double digits, leading to a major midterm setback; then the recovery of economic growth and popular approval (at very different paces). In prospect, Sullivan sees for Obama the chance to protect and enact the seismic legislation passed in his first two years; to cut major tax-and-spending deals with a chastened (or at least cornered) GOP; and to help feather down the collapse of repressive regimes and foster democratic revolution in a major corner of the globe. He protests that the forward vision is "potential, not prophecy," but with that caveat lets hope have its creative way.

It's a 3000-word vision, so perhaps one can't demand too much supporting detail.  That said, it suffers from a signature Sullivan sleight-of-hand: the paragraph brief, that builds a case by grammatical momentum, stuffed with "items in series" -- that is, comma-separated talking points that sweep the reader past some pretty questionable claims or omissions. Take the foreign policy side of the vision of second-term "potential':

What I’m describing here is a potential, not a prediction. But imagine a two-term presidency that prevented a second Great Depression, killed bin Laden, decimated al Qaeda, reformed immigration, ended the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, got a bipartisan deal on taxes and spending, and maybe—just maybe—presided over the democratic revolutions in the Arab world with the skill that the first President Bush showed as new democracies were emerging in Eastern Europe.
"Ended the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq" -- that is one of two mentions of each country, each in passing.  Afghanistan in particular leaves almost as big a hole in this article as it did in Romney's convention speech. The U.S. effort in Afghanistan seems to be imploding -- as the Dish noted (by way of James Joyner and Dexter Filkins)  last week under the headline, The War in Afghanistan is Lost. Also in the last two weeks, the Times published a harsh chronicle by Michael Gordon alleging timidity and policy failure in the administration's failure to negotiate a status of forces agreement with Iraq that would have allowed a rump U.S. presence (the absence of which, the article alleges, is enabling Iranian weapons shipments to Syria across Iraqi airspace). Meanwhile, U.S. embassies have been besieged throughout the Arab world; Putin has banned U.S. support for Russian nonprofits; and the U.S. and China are ratcheting up trade conflict on both sides. Also left out of the picture: Obama's troubling record on civil liberties, which Sullivan has acknowledged in many posts but which, as Conor Friedersdorf has protested, always seem to get left on the cutting room floor in Sullivan's step-back assessments of the Obama record.

A paragraph brief alleging accumulating foreign policy failure, characterizing the administration's conduct of foreign policy as at once harsh and weak, would be at least as oversimplified as the heroic narrative. But it could most surely be done, and much better than Romney does it. I scribbled one down this morning -- like Sullivan's, an imagined future retrospective. Realist supporter of the administration though I'd like to think myself, I can't resist letting it rip:
After failing to follow through with meaningful pressure on Netanyahu to freeze settlements, Obama acceded to Netanyahu's deep-sixing of the peace process, allowing the disastrous status quo of continued Israeli expansion in the West Bank to continue unchecked, allowing Netanyahu to change the subject to an inflated perceived threat from Iran, and forcing Obama to effectively promise war if Iran went nuclear, or perhaps even near-nuclear.  In Afghanistan, he expended fresh American blood and treasure in a time-limited surge that functioned as a fig leaf for retreat in the wake of total failure to foster a viable government that could prevent Taliban takeover or protracted Civil War.  His protracted campaign of drone assassinations, while hollowing out al Qaeda in AfPak, tipped the Pakistani populace into near-total enmity toward the United States, built support for al Qaeda in Yemen, and contributed strongly, along with our failure to move the Israeli-Palestinian peace process coupled ever more fulsome expressions of unconditional support for Israel, to the current surge of anti-Americanism throughout the Islamic world. In Asia, he pushed the US toward a fresh round of military overstretch while inflaming Chinese paranoia about encirclement, providing fresh stimulus to a nascent arms race.

It's a dangerous world; the U.S., like every other country, operates under multiple constraints, and this kind of fail narrative could be constructed for any administration.  So what's my point? Only that Andrew would serve his subject better with a more nuanced, if brief, assessment of Obama's foreign policy record.

 current spinning out of the potential for a two-term Obama to emerge as  a "liberal Reagan" 

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