August 23, 2009

The War in Afghanistan ... and Haggling

Robert Kagan dismisses this "war of necessity"/"war of choice" nonsense and then nails it:

But there is a deeper reason, as well, for Obama to claim necessity in Afghanistan. It is part of what increasingly seems to be a striving for moral purity in international affairs by this administration. Obama and his top advisers apologize for America's past sins, implicitly suggesting they will commit no new ones. And that goes for fighting wars. No one can blame you for fighting a war if it is a war of necessity, or so they may believe. All the inevitable ancillary casualties of war -- from civilian deaths to the occasional misbehavior of the troops to the errors of commanders -- are more easily forgiven if one has no choice. The claim of necessity wipes away the moral ambiguities inherent in the exercise of power. And it prevents scrutiny of one's own motives, which in nations, as in individuals, are rarely pure.


This hoped-for escape from moral burdens is, however, an illusion. Just because America declares something necessary doesn't mean that the rest of the world, and especially its victims, will believe it is just. The claim of necessity will not absolve the United States, and Obama, from responsibility for its actions.


As Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out long ago, Americans find it hard to acknowledge this moral ambiguity of power. They are reluctant to face the fact that it is only through the morally ambiguous exercise of their power that any good can be accomplished. Obama is right to be prosecuting the war in Afghanistan, and he should do so even more vigorously. But he will not avoid the moral and practical burdens of fighting this war by claiming he has no choice. An action can be right or just without being necessary. Like great presidents in the past, Barack Obama will have to explain why his choice, while difficult and fraught with complexity, is right and better than the alternatives.

Even if you do not like Kagan -- as I recall, ahem, he used to support another administration that explained its foreign policy in black-and-white moral choices -- you should read this very good column. Last week, I flew to Boston to give a talk on Afghanistan to a collection of senior-level government officials from the United States and abroad as part of the Kennedy School's Executive Education Program. All credit goes to the excellent audience -- which happily agreed to listen to a talk on strategy and operations from a 31-year old and peppered me with some great, thought-provoking questions. But without a doubt the most persistent questions I received were along the lines of "What are we doing in Afghanistan and why are we there in the first place?"

The fact that these are the questions that I am now receiving from career public servants in our nation's departments and agencies should be a huge warning bell for the administration. And it means that Kagan is exactly right -- this is now Obama's war, and he and Stan McChrystal need to explain to the American people in non-IR-speak why we are in Afghanistan and what we are doing there. (Hint: if you cannot explain your policy to folks in the 3rd Congressional District of Tennessee in a way they can understand it, you might need to change your policy.) As one career public servant explained to me afterwards, "It's not like we do not support the war in Afghanistan -- it's just that no one has explained what we're doing there."

Over to you, Mr. President, though Gen. McChrystal and the rest of your commanders should be able to help you here. I know some people fret about generals "selling" the war to the American people -- and there was certainly some of that going on in 2007 -- but I thought Gen. Petraeus's efforts to explain our strategy and operations before the U.S. Senate were helpful and not a threat to civil-military relations. So the president should ask Gen. McChrystal to do the same when he visits Washington this fall. But again, the primary burden on all this falls to POTUS.

Elsewhere in today's Post, Ignatius and Diehl wring their hands over the Middle East and lament the capacity of the Israelis and Palestinians to get the Americans focusing on the trees at the expense of the forest. "As so often happens in Middle East negotiations," Diehl writes, "what were intended as simple first steps have become an end in themselves, subject to months of posturing, hair-splitting and horse-trading."

As Monty Python understood, though, this is just the way it is.