Thursday, October 22, 2009

We Should Be Grateful that Obama is "Dithering"

[This article also appears on You can access it from my author page here.]

Former Vice President Dick Cheney accused President Barack Obama on Wednesday of "dithering" on Afghanistan. I found this equally amusing and outrageous.

You see, we, as a country, would be a lot (and I mean a lot) better off right now if Cheney and his boss had done some dithering before invading Iraq. It would have been great if they dithered before starting an unnecessary war based on trumped up evidence. It would have been really great if they dithered enough to better understand the social, religious and political dynamics in the country before the invasion (so they wouldn't have, say, dismissed the entire Iraqi army, creating an insurgency in one rash action). And it would have been really, really great if Bush and Cheney had dithered before deciding not to make any changes while Iraq disintegrated between the time Bush stood in his big-boy flight suit in front of the "Mission Accomplished" banner and the 2006 election, when the American people punished the Republicans for Bush's utter failure in Iraq. (I don't consider Bush and Cheney having dithered between 2004 and 2006, because dithering involves thinking about options, something they were too stubborn to do.)

So now, we have one of the men responsible for one of the biggest foreign policy errors in the last 100 years of American history, largely because he didn't think and plan enough, telling the current president: "Signals of indecision out of Washington hurt our allies and embolden our adversaries." No, Mr. Cheney, what hurts our allies and emboldens our adversaries is making idiotic rash decisions and then holding to them, all evidence to the contrary.

Obama's careful consideration of what to do next in Afghanistan and Cheney's junior varsity football coach-like pronouncements on decisiveness reminded me of something that, I think, sometimes gets lost in the public discourse since last November's election. Obama's victory was, of course, a rejection of Bush-Cheney's failed economic and foreign policies of the previous eight years. But it was more than that, I think. It seems that one of Obama's main draws was that he was smart, competent and thoughtful. After eight years of a president who invaded a country without fully realizing that there were three different kinds of Muslims living there (who didn't really like each other), and who presided over an incompetent government that was revealed to be so to everyone after Hurricane Katrina (with Bush's never-to-be-lived-down praising of the former International Arabian Horse Association judges and stewards commissioner he put in charge of FEMA), the American people wanted someone in the White House who was up for the job.

Obama's election is often painted in ideological terms, but it was equally about competence and thoughtfulness. It was about electing a guy to run the country who would collect evidence, listen to people who know what they're talking about, and then make a sound decision. In a bitterly divided, red state-blue state, conservative-liberal country like ours, you don't win 365 electoral votes (and states like North Carolina, Virginia and Indiana) on ideology alone. Americans voted for Obama because they thought he would make sounder decisions than the guy who was in the White House at the time (and the guy from that party running this time around on a similar platform).

The problem in Afghanistan is not an easy one to solve. The country is known as the "graveyard of empires" for a reason. Foreign powers have not done well trying to impose their will on Afghanistan. Just ask the Russians, who failed only 30 years ago. And when Obama took office, Afghanistan had been neglected by the Bush administration for years while resources were diverted to Bush's folly in Iraq. There are no easy answers. There might not be any good answers. There might only be the least bad option. And it's clear, despite Cheney's childish outbursts (he's like an Old Faithful of silly pronouncements), that Obama gets all this. Whatever Obama decides to do, the one thing that most Americans want is that he considers all options carefully before making any major commitments of the lives of American soldiers (and their families) and of the billions of dollars it would cost to send more troops (money we desperately need at home).

One look at the two competing Afghanistan articles in the Op-Ed section of today's New York Times offers a clue of how complex the issue is. Nicholas Kristof argues in his column that in the post-World War II era, the United States has underestimated the strength of nationalism in numerous cases, from Vietnam to Latin American, with the Pashtuns in Afghanistan and Pakistan being particularly ardent in defending their sovereignty. Inches away, Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Max Boot uses a case study of one Marine regiment's success in restoring order to a village in the Helmand River Valley to assert that more U.S. troops are needed to replicate the operation in other places in the country. Neither argument is unreasonable or straight-out ridiculous (like, say, claiming that health care reform will lead to death panels, socialism and President Obama herding everyone into FEMA camps), even if most of us lean towards one point of view more than the other (count me in Kristof's corner).

The point is that Kristof and Booth offer two plausible, rational courses of action, and any competent decision-maker would carefully study and consider both proposals (and others) before sending 40,000 more Americans into harm's way (many of whom have already endured multiple tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan). That isn't dithering, that's being a leader, a role that Cheney has demonstrated he is not very good at fulfilling (something with which retired general Paul Eaton apparently agrees).

The November election unquestionably gave Obama a mandate to carry out certain policies (something I wrote about last month), but it equally signaled that the American people want the president to make smart, reasoned decisions, and not to charge blindly down ideologically charted pathways. So not only is Obama right for dithering, but it is exactly what he was elected to do. To charge in recklessly like Cheney wants him to would be to engage in the very behavior that got Cheney's party thrown out of power in the last two major elections (2006 and 2008).

What if Bush and Cheney had dithered before invading Iraq? What if they had dithered before making the series of post-invasion horrendous decisions that doomed the first years of the occupation? Think about the thousands of dead soldiers (and their families), the hundreds of thousands of troops on multiple deployments (and their families) and the billions of dollars wasted in Iraq, all because Bush and Cheney didn't dither.

Thanks to Cheney, "dither" has taken on a new connotation for me. A word, once viewed as a negative, now sounds like a positive. Congrats to the former vice president. I guess you can say he finally accomplished something.

Meanwhile, I hope the president dithers as long as necessary to make the right decision on how to handle Afghanistan. I'm hoping that he starts the process of extricating us from a no-win situation, but no matter which option he chooses, at least we can all be confident that the decision will be a thoughtful one. Unlike the usual method employed by his predecessor.