The question demands to be asked: Who is more deserving of contempt? The commander-in-chief who sends young Americans to die for a cause, however misguided, in which he sincerely believes? Or the commander-in-chief who sends young Americans to die for a cause in which he manifestly does not believe and yet refuses to forsake? ~Andrew Bacevich

During much of the presidential campaign, I kept reading argument after argument from Iraq war opponents in which they invested completely unreasonable and often entirely unfounded hopes in Obama. When he said that withdrawal from Iraq would be conditions-based and would still leave a large residual U.S. presence in Iraq (this was before the SOFA had been negotiated), most of them ignored that. Obama had been against the war “from the start,” they liked to tell me, and that seemed to be all that mattered. For my part, I kept reminding our friends that Obama really was a pretty conventional liberal internationalist, and he had rarely seen a U.S. or allied military intervention he couldn’t support. The invasion of Iraq was the only one Obama ever opposed on the record, and as I have pointed out more than once his opposition to the invasion was politically necessary for a state senator from Hyde Park running in a Senate primary.

Despite that, Obama’s opposition to the invasion was entirely pragmatic: the invasion would be a mistake because it was a foolish waste of resources, not because it was illegal or immoral. He was opposed to “rash” and “dumb” wars, but not all wars by any means. Unless it was in the service of showing that Obama was not “weak,” Obama supporters usually didn’t want to hear any of this. Even so, I don’t know what it can mean to say that Obama “manifestly does not believe” in the Afghan war. I have no idea if he truly believes the war to be the right and necessary thing, and I don’t know how most of us could know that one way or the other, but he seems to be acting as if he believes this.

Despite arguing for grudging support for Obama over two years ago (mostly because the GOP was so rotten and hopeless), Prof. Bacevich had one of the most sober assessments of what an Obama Presidency would actually mean:

When it comes to foreign policy, Obama’s habit of spouting internationalist bromides suggests little affinity for serious realism. His views are those of a conventional liberal. Nor has Obama expressed any interest in shrinking the presidency to its pre-imperial proportions.

Prof. Bacevich did not seem to have any illusions then that Obama would bring an “enlightened sensibility” to the White House. If “Americans see a cool, dispassionate, calculating president whose administration lacks a moral core,” as he says they see now, it seems to me that Prof. Bacevich and I saw something like this in Obama the candidate years ago. Then again, for an administration lacking a “moral core” it has pretty consistently followed through in doing what Obama pledged during the campaign on major policies. For anyone paying close attention, it is clear that most Americans got exactly what they voted for on Afghanistan. If many of them didn’t understand that at the time, the fault can hardly be entirely Obama’s.

Obama’s aversion to challenging power and entrenched interests made it hard to believe that he would completely extricate the U.S. from Iraq. It made it completely unreasonable to expect that he would do anything in Afghanistan other than what he said he would do during the campaign, and that was to increase the U.S. commitment there substantially, albeit for a limited period of time. If Obama’s supporters were deceived into expecting something else, they were mostly responsible for deceiving themselves. Had Obama set no limit on the U.S. presence in Afghanistan and had made boilerplate declarations about staying “as long as it takes to achieve victory,” Prof. Bacevich would hardly be congratulating him on his sureness of purpose and deep convictions. He would be correctly complaining that Obama had learned nothing from Iraq about the limits of American power.

When Obama began campaigning in 2007, he criticized the Bush administration’s management of the Afghanistan war for failing to provide sufficient resources and manpower, and he made it absolutely clear that he was going to remedy this if he were elected. He also specifically attacked the over-reliance on air power that was contributing to so many Afghan civilian casualties, which prompted one of Sarah Palin’s more idiotic complaints against him during the general election. Most of what he has done in sending additional soldiers to Afghanistan and selecting generals who have instituted restrictive rules of engagement has been an attempt to repair the damage done by years of neglect and insufficient resources. It is a little odd to claim that the President responsible for decisions aimed at minimizing civilian deaths in a war he inherited is obviously the one without the “moral core” in this debate. For that matter, the war in Afghanistan is one that most Iraq war opponents regarded as a legitimate and necessary war until last year, when it suddenly became the obvious antiwar imperative to oppose continued involvement in Afghanistan. Nothing changed, except that now supporting the Afghan war isn’t as easy as it once was when it was being treated as a sideshow.

A truly morally vacuous administration would take the far easier way out, which is to have a much smaller U.S. presence augmented by steady bombardment of the countryside for years to come: there would be far fewer American casualties, the humanitarian disaster created by such tactics would be shrugged off with Rumsfeldian indifference (“stuff happens”), and each new wave of strikes would create another generation of embittered and radicalized enemies whose existence would justify continuing the war indefinitely. This would be an essentially amoral policy that takes no account of the dangers of blowback, but it would be immensely popular and politically very expedient. What should concern us is that Obama’s instinct to accommodate will eventually lead him to embrace such an amoral policy, at which point he will be deserving of the contempt Prof. Bacevich evidently wants to heap on him now.

Update: Four years ago, Prof. Bacevich wrote a powerful op-ed denouncing American indifference to Iraqi civilian casualties. At one point, he wrote:

Moral questions aside, the toll of Iraqi noncombatant casualties has widespread political implications. Misdirected violence alienates those we are claiming to protect. It plays into the hands of the insurgents, advancing their cause and undercutting our own. It fatally undermines the campaign to win hearts and minds, suggesting to Iraqis and Americans alike that Iraqi civilians — and perhaps Arabs and Muslims more generally — are expendable.

This was right then, and it seems to me that it applies no less to Afghanistan now.

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