President Barack Obama's decision to send 30,000 or more U.S. troops to Afghanistan has drawn criticism from both ends of the political spectrum. That's the best indication that his strategy is probably just about right.
His speech in Oslo, Norway, last week won praise from many, although even there his critics were quick to quibble.
While conceding his "eloquence" (when did it become popular to ridicule leaders who deliver a speech without tripping over their own tongue?), one snotty commentator complained the president's Nobel Prize acceptance speech drew too heavily on a traditional American view of the world.
On the other side, right-wing pundits can't get over the fact that the Nobel committee honored President Obama in the first place, much less that he would accept the honor.
Responsible conservatives likely were reassured that the president used his acceptance speech as a bully pulpit to justify the decision to send more Americans to war.
If nothing else, to illustrate the meaning of irony, teachers around the globe henceforth can draw upon a wartime president accepting a peace prize.
What the president of the United States says about foreign policy pales when measured against the actions he takes.
Unlike his predecessor, Obama has shied from proclamations that reduce the world's complexity to sound bites easily digested by cable newscasters. He may or may not be remembered as a great president, but it won't be because he stood, gloating, under a “Mission Accomplished” banner.
Curiously, the president's decision to bolster U.S. forces in Afghanistan has drawn the most heat from fellow Democrats, the people who put him in office. If memory serves, candidate Obama repeatedly lambasted President George W. Bush for taking his eye off the ball in Afghanistan in favor of invading Iraq. If he had decided to draw down troops in Afghanistan at this point, Republicans justifiably could claim the president had reneged on one of his major campaign promises.
In truth, whoever occupies the Oval Office, the situation in Afghanistan presents a classic dilemma. As others have observed, there are no good choices.
Army Gen. Stanley McCrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces there, described the existing situation as untenable. If the mission is to stave off the Taliban insurgency until Afghanistan forces are equal to the task of protecting their country, then more U.S. and allied troops are needed.
When Obama announced he would comply with the request for more troops, at the same time he set a date for starting to bring them home. Both detractors and supporters of President Obama roundly denounced him. Doves asked: If the intent is to bring troops home in 18 months, why send more soldiers to die in the meantime? Hawks blasted him for signaling to the enemy that America's resolve was half-hearted.
The administration attempted to blunt the latter charge by sending minions onto the airwaves to ensure the country that rate of troop withdrawal was flexible – not unlike the draw down in Iraq.
This war isn't about Afghanistan or bringing Osama bin Laden to justice. It certainly isn't about creating a viable democracy among people who disdain many of the principles Americans hold dearly.
Because they are dependent on public opinion, presidents couch policy decisions in ideological terms that are designed to blunt criticism. If the president dared be frank, he would declare that the best to be hoped for in our continued presence in Afghanistan is to buy time for anti-Taliban elements to establish themselves as viable resistance. The situation in Iraq, which continues to be racked by violence between religious sects and tribal groups, may be the model.
Ultimately, however, continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan is vital because of the message it sends to Pakistan as it wages its own campaign against Islamic fundamentalists. As one of the largest nations on earth, stability in that nuclear-armed, predominantly Muslim country is essential.
Although strategies may vary, that objective has remained unchanged under both Republican and Democratic administrations.
When dealing with the twin horns of a dilemma, neither choice is attractive. Given the circumstances, President Obama probably made the only one he could.
Let's pray history proves him right.