Friday, June 24, 2011

Teaching a Pig How to Sing

A Music Department colleague of mine sometimes employs an adage about never trying to teach a pig how to sing: it wastes your time and it annoys the pig.

By my lights, that's not an entirely inappropriate metaphor for these last several years of America's military intervention in the so-called "graveyard of empires."  American troops have fought hard, endured much, but in the end, achieved not nearly enough, but through no real fault of their own.  American diplomats have labored mightily with Mr. Karzai and his minions - cajoling, imploring, threatening; yet in the end, it's Karzai and his corrupted system, not the Americans, who will endure (though in Karzai's case, probably not for long after US forces pull out.  Bottom line: the US couldn't "fix" Afghanistan.  And trying to get the pig to sing our song, as it were, only left the Taliban happy to hear Obama's announcement, and Karzai cheerful that the foreigners would be leaving.

As Michael Crowley (at Time's Swampland) notes, Republican worthies are now likely to jump all over Obama, condemn him as a "declinist."  Whereas, in fact, Obama is simply taking a pragmatic decision.  Yes, it may work to his political benefit long-term, given how the US public has turned so definitely against continuing the Afghan war; there's room to wax cynically about that.  But the fact of the matter is that Obama also had the courage to recognize - even if belatedly - that the US had run up against the limits of what it can do, specifically in Afghanistan, but more broadly as well.  This idea of America's limits, of course, runs very much against the grain of many of my generation, who were raised on post-WWII triumphalism and the belief that "Americans" can do anything they set their mind to. 

Time to get real. (And, btw, for a superb reality check post-Obama announcement, see Tony Karon's superb analysis here.)  Our military is stretched too thin; our NATO allies are bailing out (as France announced earlier today; I don't think Sarko will take much heat from his countrymen for that); and the slowing-down US economy is headed for catastrophe unless Obama can get Congress to raise taxes and/or cut some spending.  (On that, see the WaPo on the new report from the CBO.)

I'll close with Crowley's own final thoughts:
Commentators will fixate on the military dimensions of Obama’s new policy. In truth the test for him now is the far more complicated political settlement of which he spoke. That is a huge diplomatic challenge, an elaborate dance between the Karzai government, the Taliban, and our frenemies in Islamabad. A real long term solution will likely involve Delhi as well, and even Tehran. In the coming days Obama’s conservative critics will talk at length about David Petraeus’s frustrations. But what matters more is this game of three-dimensional diplomatic chess. The Soviets, too, thought they could arrange a face-saving political solution, one that also involved Pakistan’s deep involvement. They were proven wrong when the country soon devolved to a horrendous civil war that wiped out their political allies. Obama’s challenge now is to avoid a repeat of that history. And to achieve diplomatically what seems futile militarily: an outcome that will prevent America’s adventure in Afghanistan from being recorded as another revelation of a great power’s decline.

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