Obama Steals Ron Paul's Isolationist Clothes

Are we fighting a war, or aren't we?

It's about as well remembered by the common American man-on-the-street these days as the life and times of Mansa Musa, but when George W. Bush was preparing to invade Iraq, he was not alone in thinking this was a good idea.  Prominent Democrats from Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and John Edwards on down agreed that Saddam was a clear and present danger, a threat to world peace, and somebody the world was better off without.

Their determination to oust a bloodthirsty dictator didn't even last until the next election.  In 2004, Candidate Kerry performed one of his legendary flip-flops and pronounced himself against the war with Candidate Edwards right beside him.  Over time, the Democratic party to a man wiped clean the slate of history and pronounced the Iraq war a mistake due solely to Chimpy McBushitler's bloodthirstiness - except for Sen. Joe Lieberman, once the Democrat's 2000 veep candidate, but now thrown out of his own party for his pains.

One of Barack Obama's key appeals to the far left during his run for the nomination was that he alone, unlike his opponents, had never supported the Iraq War in any way; the fact that he hadn't been in a position to influence the war one way or the other was conveniently ignored.  In his campaign for the Presidency, Mr. Obama stayed true to this theme: the Iraq War was nothing more than a stupid waste of time, money, and lives, which he would end ASAP.

Well, as Mr. Obama likes to remind Republicans, "I won!"  Just as he promised, he's withdrawing from Iraq.  You might or might not think this is a good idea, but there's no question that he has every right as commander in chief as well as an electoral mandate to do just that: he ran his campaign saying he would, and now he is.  Fair enough.

But Barack Obama, to the mild displeasure of the far left, also said that the war in Afghanistan needed to be fought.  In fact, that was by far his strongest rhetorical argument against the Iraq war: that it distracted us from the real threat of Mr. Osama bin Laden and his friends the Afghanistan Taliban.  If Iraq was the bad, stupid war of choice, Afghanistan was the good war of necessity.

Wars on the Cheap

For a while, President Obama kept those promises too.  In February, he ordered 17,000 more American soldiers to Afghanistan, joining the 36,000 already there.  With more soldiers in a war zone naturally come more casualties: according to the Wall Street Journal,

Since the start of July, the death toll for U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops has been comparable to casualty levels in Iraq during the height of violence there, averaging roughly 3.5 a day. [emphasis added]

If Iraq was Mr. Bush's War, Afghanistan is fast becoming Mr. Obama's War.  Mr. Bush - let's face it - didn't do a great job in getting his war polished off quickly.  At first, he and Donald Rumsfeld apparently believed that America's immense advantage in technology allowed us to win wars with only a handful of soldiers operating primarily from massive bases.

They were right, in the sense that we squashed Saddam Hussein's regular army like a bug; alas, the only way you can actually occupy and control territory is with boots on the street.  No quantity of Predator drones and missiles can make a war-torn country into a peacefully operationng democracy.  You can kill everybody and turn the place into a no-man's land, but short of killing 'em all, the only way to achieve peace is for the loser to decide that the war's over and say "uncle"; that means a trooper on every street corner until the losers admit they lost.

It seemed to take forever for our government to learn this lesson; Mr. Bush  provided the necessary soldiers for Gen. Petraeus' surge at the last possible moment.  Fortunately, it more or less worked, and Mr. Obama inherited an Iraq War which can be closed out in a reasonably orderly fashion.

Will Mr. Obama learn the lesson from Mr. Bush's early failures and last-minute change of plans?  It's beginning to look like the answer is "No," and he'll have to learn that lesson over again for himself.

Not Again!

In what must trigger a strong sense of deja vu in the military, Gen. McChrystal has told President Obama that he needs more troops if we want to win in Afghanistan.  Some reports say he wants as many as half a million!

This isn't as outrageous as it might sound - though sparsely populated, Afghanistan is far larger than Iraq and encompasses some of the roughest terrain on earth.  If our goal is to thoroughly root out and destroy the Taliban, we will have to have forces in every city, town, village, and hamlet, with all our aerial backup and surveillance tools at their disposal.

Instead, we're doing just the opposite, as NPR reports:

The U.S. military is starting to pull its troops from some of the more remote areas of Afghanistan. The decision is part of a counterinsurgency strategy by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top military commander in Afghanistan, but there are concerns that the Taliban could capitalize on the move.

The U.S. military prefers to call McChrystal's decision to move troops from some of the more remote parts of Afghanistan a "repositioning" of forces. Col. Wayne Shanks, a spokesman for coalition forces in Afghanistan, says McChrystal's strategy places a premium on protecting the population, especially in towns and cities where the Taliban has made inroads.

"Gen. McChrystal has been discussing with his commanders how better to protect the population, not just necessarily hold pieces of land," says Shanks. "We're more concerned with repositioning forces across the country in order to better isolate the insurgents from the population."  [emphasis added]

We tried that strategy in Vietnam, and before that, the British tried it in South Africa during the Boer War, when they invented the concentration camp.  The idea then was to "concentrate" the civilians in an easily-guarded camp.

From the way we view the term "concentration camp" today, you can probably deduce how well that turned out.  It didn't work any better in Vietnam, even with the villagers staying in their own village homes rather than special camps.

We tried much the same scheme in Iraq at first, with the giant concrete walls separating the various religious sects.  It didn't stop the slaughter one bit.  Only when we brought the war to the enemy did we get anywhere, and to do that you need enough troops.

Gen. Colin Powell tells us that when we are at war, every resource and tool should be used to achieve decisive force against the enemy, minimizing US casualties and ending the conflict quickly by forcing the weaker force to capitulate.  In other words, get it over with quickly: be clear about what you're trying to do, do what needs to be done ASAP, then get out.

Mr. Bush didn't listen to Gen. Powell.  It looks like Mr. Obama isn't listening either which means he'll have to learn the hard way.  If news reports are to be believed, Mr. Obama ordered his generals to scrub their report of its request for more troops - and has seen fit to talk to his Afghanistan commanding general exactly once since appointing him.  What's the point of having professional advisers if you order them to tell you what you want to hear, on that rare occasion when you deign to grant them a royal audience?

Americans don't like wars that drag on forever; we get tired, distracted, and irritated at the continual return of our soldiers in body bags, especially when our leaders do a bum job of continually reminding us "Why We Fight."

One of the reasons World War II was a time of such national unity was because Roosevelt's government spared no effort or expense in reminding America just what was at stake, exactly what the goals were, and precisely how we intended to accomplish them.  With help from our allies, he did exactly what he said he planned to do - he won the war as quickly as humanly possible, accomplishing the proclaimed ends of terminating fascism, Nazism, and militarism by forcing the Germans, Italians and Japanese into unconditional surrender.

Why are we in Afghanistan?  To catch Osama bin Laden?  To wipe out Islamic fundamentalism?  (Lotsa luck!)  To kill all the Taliban?  (That'll keep us busy!)  America demands an answer and isn't getting one, any more than we're getting clear answers about health care.

The Mandate and the Reverse Mandate

The funny thing is, Mr. Obama has an electoral mandate to do the job in Afghanistan properly.  Time after time, Candidate Obama said he'd concentrate on Afghanistan.  He won; the American people clearly supported that plan.  Why won't he do it?

His mandate is even stronger when you consider that there was a well-known candidate who offered just the opposite: withdrawal from all wars overseas.  Dr. Ron Paul differed from Mr. Obama, Mr. McCain and Mr. Bush in countless ways, most clearly as related to military action.  Dr. Paul asked over and over, why are we the world's policeman when it costs so much and nobody wants us doing it?

American isolationist tendencies go all the way back to the founding of our country with Thomas Jefferson's fear of "entangling alliances" and John Adams' steadfast refusal to get involved in the wars between France and England.  For 60 years, though, America has pretty much strode the world stage, and been heavily involved globally for twice that.

There's nothing wrong with Dr. Paul offering a return to a more restricted view of what our soldiers should be doing and where they ought to be; and a glance at Mr. Obama's Himalayan deficits marching on as far as the eye can see makes us think that, just possibly, Ron Paul had a point when he said we couldn't afford Mr. Obama's ideas.

Dr. Paul paid a price for his honesty, however.  His massive fund-raising successes were greeted by equally massive failures at the polls.

Instead of baldly stating that we can't afford to be fighting all over the world and bringing our soldiers home in defeat but alive, Mr. Obama prefers to let them stay banging away at a war for which he won't provide enough resources to let them win.  The parade of body-bags goes on.  Shades of LBJ?  When will the slogan be "Obama lied, thousands died?"

The Dems constantly tried to cast Iraq as Mr. Bush's Vietnam.  It didn't turn out that way.  Instead, it looks like Afghanistan will be Mr. Obama's Vietnam - a war we lost wretchedly and at great cost because we had neither the determination to fight it properly nor the intestinal fortitude to realize that and bail early on.

Dr. Ron Paul, being a patriotic American, will gain no comfort from being proved right.  Maybe the rest of us can at least gain some wisdom.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Petrarch or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
Reader Comments
Was RP actually right about Afghanistan? Good men can disagree on Iraq, but do we think we should NOT have invaded Afghanistan at all?
October 2, 2009 11:13 AM
It looks like RP was right, in the sense that he did not think that we had the resources to fight the war through successfully to completion.

If you are not willing to do whatever it takes to win a war, it's better not to fight it at all. Bush wasn't; now Obama isn't. That's the true lesson of Vietnam, as best expressed in the Powell Doctrine. Seems simple enough to me, I dunno why our leaders are incapable of learning it.
October 2, 2009 12:10 PM
RP is a big supporter of the axiom supported my most Framers, including Washington and Jefferson: peace and free trade with all nations, entangling alliances with none. I wish people would stop calling that an "isolationist" policy. We trade with and visit everyone, as a nation and individuals...but we don't stick our military beaks in where they don't belong. And in my view, the only purpose of a permanent military establishment is to protect our own shores from outside invasion/attack, not to make Iraq "safe" for Exxon-Mobil and BP. In that sense, how much "military establishment" do we really need?
October 6, 2009 9:39 AM
@ Thomas - It can be argued that if we didn't keep Arabian oil flowing, we wouldn't be able to defend our home shores, or certainly sustain our economy. And what about defending the sea lanes that transport materials to us and goods in trade?
October 6, 2009 4:23 PM
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