Monthly Archives: November 2009

President Obama, is Afghanistan more like Vietnam or Germany?

By Marc Seltzer; originally published on November 30, 2009, at

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When President Barack Obama addresses the nation on Tuesday evening, December 1, from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, I will be looking for the President to answer specific questions I have about the United States’ conduct of the war in Afghanistan.

I would like to hear Mr. Obama state clearly the current objective.  Is it to build a modern nation in Afghanistan, create a quasi-democratic state, or simply stand a government that can police its own population and take actions that support U.S. security objectives?  Eighty percent of Afghanistan’s population live in 32,000 rural villages. Economic and political life is different there than in modern societies, and I want to see that the President’s plan does not rest on unrealistic expectations and assumptions.

President Bush’s military mission in Afghanistan was to remove the Taliban from power and stop Al Qaeda and its associates from conducting violent action against the United States.  The initial invasion succeeded in ending the Taliban national government, and the ongoing campaign has forced Al Qaeda to seek more hospitable territory elsewhere.  However, installing a democratic government with control of the entire country has proved impossible, and in the face of such difficulty, the mission has become less clear.

The most important issue in the war in Afghanistan may be its impact on Pakistan.  If any nation could be the catalyst for a WWIII scenario it is a nation with a nuclear arsenal and a violent extremist insurgency.  Pakistani Taliban and other insurgents are actively fighting against the democratic government of Pakistan and lethal bombings of civilian and military targets are becoming daily occurrences.  An all-out civil war in Pakistan would be catastrophic and could require international forces to secure nuclear weapons, at the very least.  If this is part of the calculation of continuing our military effort in neighboring Afghanistan, Mr. Obama should say so. The Bush administration played fast-and-lose with the reasoning behind the invasion of Iraq, and confidence in American credibility suffered as a result.

And then there’s the Vietnam question.  Are we even capable of defeating the Taliban?

In Vietnam, we were unwilling to risk a direct military confrontation with the Soviet Union and China, and yet could not defeat the North Vietnamese people without risking such an all-out superpower war.  Thus, we were in an unwinnable war with no good diplomatic solutions.

While there is no superpower behind insurgent forces in Afghanistan, there is significant support in the population and financial backing from abroad.  We have been fighting insurgents for eight years and are no closer to victory.

It is a combination of troop strength and strategy that will make or break the U.S. effort in Afghanistan.  Not just critics of the war, but top military brass, have said that a political solution is ultimately necessary.  In Iraq, an important part of the “surge” strategy was hiring the unemployed former army members and others who were fighting against us.  The concurrent increase in U.S. troops also supported government and military efforts to control violence, but the change in strategy was key. A similar initiative to pay local Talibs to switch sides is now underway in Afghanistan.

If the new strategy for Afghanistan is not producing positive results in a year or two, will the President accept defeat and withdraw our resources?  There is evidence that President Lyndon Johnson did not want to be involved in the Vietnam war and did not think it was winnable.  Yet, he continued to increase American participation based on domestic political consequences and complex international uncertainties.  However, our resources are precious and should be used with serious intentions, not squandered, or commited by default.

Will there be an honest assessment as to whether the new strategy in Afghanistan is working?  Does the President have the courage to recognize and accept failure?  It was one thing to refuse to accept defeat in a WWII.  The war against Germany and Japan saw a far greater commitment of resources and manpower.  Our entire nation was transformed into an armament factory and the committment to destroy the enemy and remake its society was total.  On the military front, we used all the force we had and accepted both our own heavy losses and devastating destruction of German and Japanese civilian targets.  Total victory was necessary and total defeat was not an option.  However, the situation in Afghanistan is not a world war.  Failure of a operation does not mean the surrender of all objectives.  Only fourteen years after South Vietnam fell to the Communist North, the Berlin Wall came down and international communism was on its way out.  (If you still have an image of Communism guiding China and Vietnam today, travel there and test your ideas.  Both nations provide thriving business environments and gradual reforms).

The lesson here is that we should not follow a failing strategy for long.  The risk of failure is substantial, and the President and his military command must be able to evaluate and change course, as necessary, including abandoning losing causes.

I will listen with an open mind to the President’s reasoning on Afghanistan.  What I hope to hear is not so much an answer that fits my preconceived notions, but an explanation of the U.S. mission there and a realistic assessment of strategy designed to achieve our goals.

For an Afghan voice and perspective (although somewhat dated), see my Interview with Massoud Quiam and Commentary by Massoud Quiam.

December 2, 2009 Update: C-Span 3 is covering live Congressional testimony of Defense Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen on Afghanistan.

Point of contention is whether it makes sense to ramp up the battle now, while at the same time saying that we intend to start transferring responsibility for security to the Afghan authorities by mid 2011.  Is this just the usual attack on the President, or is there a contradition here?  Can we say that we are only willing to spend so much time and money (and risk to our troops) and that that time is running out — a limmited commitment — without hurting our chances of success?  It is a legitimate question, but the benefits of such a policy may still outweigh the costs.

Obama Approval, Progressive Politics and Democratic Unity

By Marc Seltzer; originally published on November 25, 2009, at

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Pundits have focused recently on President Obama’s declining public opinion polls.  As the President drops to fifty percent approval ratings, the talk speculates on whether the poor economy will sink Democratic prospects in the 2010 midterm elections.  The economy is important and the administration’s policies will not cure recession blues before the election, but of greater concern is the question of Democratic political unity.

Republicans have criticized the President’s leadership and policies from the get go, but with Progressives attacking the administration and fracturing the President’s base, some of the moderates who elected him are beginning to wonder.  Have the progressives gone off in search of Ralph Nader?

Neither the left nor the right have a majority in national American politics.  The candidate that convinces the pragmatic middle to join the ideological left or right wins both in electing candidates and in charting policy.  President Bush succeeded in maintaining the right-middle coalition between 2000 and 2008.  He used the power he was given to lower taxes on the wealthy, promote hands-off financial oversight, conduct aggressive foreign and military policy and tilt the delicate balance between rights and security not so delicately in favor of security.

President Obama won back moderates in 2008, promising to shift economic policy towards the middle class, embracing government regulation in finance, the environment and health care, and seeking new strategic solutions in international relations.  His is not, in fact, a liberal vision, despite Republican characterizations, but it is a more moderate one than what came before, and one that aims to learn from the experiences of prior administrations.As long as his coalition continues, the President’s approach to taxes and budget, justice and rights, and foreign policy and war will prevail.

However, after nine months in office, it seems the President can no longer count on the Progressive wing for support.  In the guise of influencing the President to move to the left, Progressive critics attack the President and his administration.  Calls for Treasury Secretary Geithner to resign by Rep. Peter DeFazio D-Or are but the most recent example.  The left is also troubled by economic decision-making and the potential increase in troops headed for Afghanistan.  Of course, any coalition will contain different viewpoints.  A goal of our democratic process is for hearty debate to distinguish the best ideas from all others.  But Progressives fail to grasp that the President needs the full support of those that elected him in order to achieve his agenda and present a successful Democratic party to the electorate in 2010 and 2012.  If the party is not unified, the President will not succeed and the power will shift back to the Republicans.

It is only because President Obama joined, at least temporarily, the moderate center of the electorate with the traditional Democratic party that he succeeded in bringing his moderate voice to the fore.

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In Republican Victories a Lesson for President Obama

By Marc Seltzer; originally published on November 5, 2009, at

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What does a master politician learn from defeat?

Republicans are claiming the November election shows a renunciation of Barack Obama’s nine months of leadership.

Democrats are reassured by the Owens victory in New York: The Conservative candidate was too far to the right for mainstream America.

But President Obama must surely be licking his wounds.  He, and his party, should have won the Virginia and New Jersey governors’ races.

Candidate Obama won those states forcefully in November 2008.  How could they be lost so decisively now?

Mr. Obama has been in office 9 months. The public saw in candidate Obama a fix for the errors of President Bush:  Bad wars would be ended; good wars would be fought successfully; special interests would be put in their place; the super rich would pay their taxes; average Joes would find jobs, and decisions on health care, foreign policy, financial regulation and immigration would solve knotty problems of budget woes, and nuclear fears while making humanitarian advances.

Ruling is far different from campaigning.  We are three-hundred million people living under the representational leadership of one head-of-state who shares power with 500 or so others representing each and every bit of our union from the Hawaiian Islands to the Eastern seaboard.

Every President suffers in the elections following their inauguration as the public’s hopes are dashed by the realities of governance.  What seemed so obvious and positive in a speech during the campaign becomes so complicated and expensive when you face it squarely and manifest it in policy and law.

But is that it?  Is it just disappointment with reality?

I don’t think so.  It’s more than that.

The President has presided over one of the most remarkable economic events in U.S. history.  The financial industry – a core pillar of American and international business — was brought to the brink of collapse.  Democratic and Republican leaders acted quickly and creatively without a playbook to rescue the financial sector.  This was not an average recession, but an international crisis of finance that was bigger than the financial system itself.  That’s why the government had to step in, but the results will be debated and lessons included in the next generation’s history books.

Possibly fearful of making a mistake, the President has hesitated to explain clearly to the American people just what has happened.  Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and a league of economists in government and academia have spoken to the causes and reform proposals.  With all due respect to Secretary Geithner’s intellect and articulateness, President Obama, with his commanding charisma and office of authority, must lead on this issue.

If the nation had plunged into a depression, rather than skirting perilously around the edge, the President would be expected to lead us through.  The fact that we may have avoided more catastrophic losses does not obviate the profound need for leadership to speak powerfully to the causes, remedies, and reform.  It is not enough that competent leaders work the process through congressional committees and administrative working groups.  The President must face the event squarely and communicate to the public about his presidency’s relationship to these historic times.  When I think of the Great Depression, I think of Roosevelt telling the nation “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  When I think of the bombing of Britain, there is Churchill saying, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.”  But when I think of the financial crisis of 2008-2009, I think of Paul Krugman and Bloomberg Economics.

And this leads back to November 3, 2009.  The reason that the Democrats lost in battles against Republicans is that the public is concerned about direction of the government on the economy.   What has the President done in 9 months of office?  He has addressed the financial crisis and pushed ahead on health care.  Both of these programs deal fundamentally with economics (if money grew on trees, we wouldn’t bother with insurance reform) and the fiscal state of the nation.  Yet the President has not yet done what he is capable of to express a coherent financial plan on either issue.  He is, of course, subject to Republican criticism no matter what, but more important than that, he does not have the confidence of the moderate middle of the country who decide close elections.

Bill Clinton lost a great deal of his authority in 1994 when the Republicans retook power in Congress two years into his presidency.  President Obama has had a hint of what can happen in the losses in Virginia and New Jersey.  A gift in disguise?

Mr. Obama needs to refocus his communication priorities to explain to the American people his short- and long-term economic vision.  He needs to include a convincing dose of reality in his message rather than campaign rehtoric — not just “economic recovery” and “bend the cost curve” but targets for deficit and debt, goals for long term spending and revenue, transition from stimulus to private economic activity.  And the President must deliver and stay on the message himself in order to inspire confidence in the majority of Americans.

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