September 19, 2009

Hurricane Warning

Deeper into the abyss fall the American people. Not only has our eagerness for debating Afghanistan been ignored, we seem to be an irritant as well. Though officials will likely object to this interpretation, the evidence is stacked against them. Americans have been confused by countless contradictions and have every right to demand answers, but the response from the White House and Pentagon hasn’t been encouraging.

Time to shock them back into reality.

The newest debate over Afghanistan doesn’t center around troop requests, but whether President Obama is stalling on his decision, fearful of jeopardizing his health care reform. Most signs indicate such a conclusion, a good one being Defense Secretary Robert Gates. He, along with Joint Chief of Staff Michael Mullen and CENTCOM commander General David Petraeus, were supposed to provide continuation for Obama so that it wouldn’t take a year just to formulate a new strategy for a rapidly evolving war.

They were supposed to smooth the transition but, eight months later, are pleading for additional months of patience instead.

Faced with mounting pressure from the American people, Congress, and Afghans, transparency has succumbed to defensiveness. Secretary Gates, instrumental in playing down troop demands from the press, is bent on keeping General Stanley McChrystal’s review away from the American public. When asked why the review is classified during a Pentagon news briefing, Gates responded that President Obama has the right to “absorb the assessment himself.”

“We need to understand that the decisions that the president faces on Afghanistan are some of the most important he may face in his presidency, about how we go forward there,” Gates said.

Some of Gates’ points are well taken. Afghanistan has become the keystone of American foreign policy and nobody wants to see President Obama choose the wrong strategy. But Gates needs to understand the American people’s position if he wants us to understand the Pentagon’s. We suffer from numerous contradictions that make an already complex war even more confusing. Yet Gates is apparently chafing under the political pressure, grumbling, “I felt a sense of building momentum that's sort of demanding a decision in days, if not a week or two. And I just think that, given the importance of the decisions that the president faces, we need to take our time and get this right.”

Though the current outcry over Afghanistan is a direct result of an information vacuum fostered by the White House and the Pentagon, Gates tried to pin the blame on the American people. Too bad for him that we aren’t the only ones growing restless.

After the White House presented a list of benchmarks to Congress, Senator Carl Levin worried, "they didn’t tell us anything we don’t already know." Senator John Kerry jabbed, “No amount of money, no rise in troop levels, and no clever metrics will matter if the mission is ill-conceived.” Several senators requested additional interviews with General McChrystal, but Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell says no meetings are expected to be held. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid complained of a lack of communication between the White House and Congress.

“We need more briefings,” Reid insisted.

And these are President Obama’s natural allies. His unnatural alliance is starting to question his decision-making abilities too. Senator John McCain said the closed-door briefing for senators was insufficient and reminded him of how the Bush administration handled Congress. No doubt with a hint of satisfaction, McCain told reporters afterwards, "We thought we were going to have a real discussion of the strategy, and we didn't. I didn't like it, but I'm not outraged. I saw this with other administrations.”

Though the Pentagon seems involved in the delays, even it is reportedly irked by Obama. Going for the knockout blow, Afghanistan's ambassador to America, Tayeb Jawad, warned that Afghans and Europe are starting to worry about the delay. “It’s time for the administration to come out and indicate a clear commitment to success and indicate the significance of the mission in Afghanistan," he said.

Frustration with President Obama’s handling of Afghanistan is legitimate and crosses age demographics, political spectrums and international borders. Obama must realize the demand is a frank dialogue, not an immediate decision. Yet our thirst for information, after such a long drought, has been perversely twisted into impatience and ignorance. Instead of the slightest insight we are told to keep quiet - an insult to the American people.

“There's been a lot of talk this week and the last two or three weeks about Afghanistan,” Gates told reporters. “And frankly, from my standpoint, everybody ought to take a deep breath.”

How long do we have to hold it? Senator Levin claims, “It could be weeks or months before we get a presidential recommendation.” Gates seems to have anticipated delays, as he personally authorized 2,000 - 3,000 “critical enablers” if the war deteriorates further, "and is prepared to send more, if needed, before the president makes his decision." Apparently President Obama’s indecision is its own mechanism to deploy new troops. Take a deep breath America... then scream as loud as you can.

Gates must be told at the highest decibel that the American people won’t back down from a debate or rescind our demand for information. This is America and we will debate troop levels every second of every hour of every day, and protest too. If we are told to be quiet, we must do the opposite. Nothing good can come from the Defense Secretary telling the American people to stop talking about, thinking about, and questioning Afghanistan.

President Obama’s current predicament isn’t the American people’s fault. Given that he knew two years in advance that he would run for president, Obama should have begun his strategy for Afghanistan long before he was elected. He’s going on three years, not eight months, yet still can’t make a decision. Yes, the war’s landscape has changed over time, but that is the nature of war. Waiting even longer will allow the ground new time to shift, jeopardizing whatever strategy is developed now. The bottom line is that President Obama should have been ready a lot sooner for the biggest foreign policy issue of his presidency.

Though getting his strategy right is paramount to Obama’s overall success as president, war allows no time to relax or to waste. There is no rest for the warring. War is a death struggle that requires 100% attention and commitment; the Washington Post reported that Obama has held one meeting with his national security team since receiving General McChrystal’s review earlier this month. Not only does Obama have no time to relax, the American people aren’t going to either.

We aren’t asking for the ultimate decision, simply a few rays of light. But snub us and our craving for information will erupt like a gathering storm.

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