WASHINGTON – By early 2011, writes former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, he had concluded that President Obama “doesn’t believe in his own [Afghanistan] strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his.” Not his? America is at war and he’s America’s commander in chief. For the soldier being shot at in the field, it makes no difference under whose administration the fighting began. In fact, three out of four Americans killed in Afghanistan have died under Barack Obama’s command. That’s ownership enough. Moreover, Gates’ doubts about Obama had begun long before. A year earlier, trying to understand how two senior officials could be openly working against expressed policy, Gates concluded that “the most likely explanation was that the president himself did not really believe the strategy he had approved would work.” This, just four months after Obama ordered his 30,000 troop “surge” into Afghanistan, warning the nation that “our security is at stake … the security of our allies, and the common security of the world.”
The odd thing about Gates’ insider revelation of Obama’s lack of faith in his own policy is that we knew it all along. Obama was emitting discordant notes from the very beginning. In the West Point “surge” speech itself, the very sentence after that announcement consisted of the further announcement that the additional troops would be withdrawn in 18 months. How can any commander be so precise so far in advance about an enterprise as inherently contingent and unpredictable? It was a signal to friend and foe that he wasn’t serious. And as if to amplify that signal, Obama added that “the nation that I’m most interested in building is our own,” thus immediately undermining the very importance of the war to which he was committing new troops. Such stunning ambivalence, I wrote at the time, had produced the most uncertain trumpet ever sounded by a president. One could sense that Obama’s heart was never in it. And now we know. Indeed, this became hauntingly clear to Obama’s own defense secretary within just a few months – before the majority of the troops had arrived in the field, before the new strategy had even been tested. How can a commander in good conscience send troops on a mission he doesn’t believe in, a mission from which he knows some will never return? Even worse, Obama ordered a major escalation, expending much blood but not an ounce of his own political capital. Over the next four years, notes Gates with chagrin, Obama ignored the obligation of any commander to explain, support and try to rally the nation to the cause. And when he finally terminated the surge, he did so in the middle of the 2012 fighting season. Militarily incoherent – but politically convenient. It allowed Obama to campaign for re-election proclaiming that “the tide of war is receding.” One question remains, however. If he wasn’t committed to the mission, if he didn’t care about winning, why did Obama throw these soldiers into battle in the first place?
Because for years the Democrats had used Afghanistan as a talking point to rail against the Iraq War – while avoiding the politically suicidal appearance of McGovernite pacifism. As consultant Bob Shrum later admitted, “I was part of the 2004 Kerry campaign, which elevated the idea of Afghanistan as ‘the right war’ to conventional Democratic wisdom. This was accurate as criticism of the Bush administration, but it was also reflexive and perhaps by now even misleading as policy.” Translation: They were never really serious about Afghanistan. (Nor apparently about Iraq, either. Gates recounts with some shock that Hillary Clinton admitted she opposed the Iraq surge for political reasons, and Obama conceded that much of the opposition had indeed been political.) The Democratic mantra – Iraq War, bad; Afghan War, good – was simply a partisan device to ride anti-Bush, anti-Iraq War feeling without appearing squishy. Look, they could say: We’re just being tough and discriminating. Iraq is a dumb war, said Obama repeatedly. It’s a war of choice. Afghanistan is a war of necessity, the central front in the war on terror. Having run on that, Obama had a need to at least make a show of trying to win the good war, the smart war. “If I had ever come to believe the military part of the strategy would not lead to success as I defined it,” writes Gates. “I could not have continued signing the deployment orders.” The commander in chief, Gates’ book makes clear, had no such scruples. Charles Krauthammer’s column is distributed by The Washington Post Writers Group.