Despite the brilliant Nobel rhetoric, Barack Obama is a president treading water. The peace efforts in Iran and between Israel and the Palestinians that seemed so promising at the end of summer are fading. America will soon have 30,000 more troops in Afghanistan. The bombings and general destabilization in nuclear-armed Pakistan continue at a frightening pace. It is not exactly a win-win scenario.
The eloquent talk about a muscular use of American military power in a war of necessity masks the realities on the ground. The al-Qaida threat is largest and most deadly in neighboring Pakistan; Obama has yet to connect the dots showing how military intervention in one place will affect the situation in the other. After two major speeches in West Point and Oslo, it is still unclear why Afghanistan is an unavoidable war.
The continuing commitment to troops as a solution and the discussion of a “just war” doesn’t address this reality: The future of Afghanistan is a political proposition that is largely in the hands of the Afghan people themselves. After eight years and $200 billion spent, this vast nation-building project does not seem to be getting much headway. Neither Obama nor Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has yet to produce a plan dealing with Hamid Karzai and the substantial corruption emanating from Kabul. U.S. troops cannot solve these critical issues.
The troop decision and Obama’s high-profile efforts to defend it give the impression that he is trying to please too many people at once. Obama throws a bone to conservatives who believe victory is largely a military equation. Simultaneously, he attempts to placate a left that is weary of how the “War on Terror” is defined and executed by portraying himself as an unwilling warrior. His insistence on casting the problem in terms of an American military victory or defeat will only polarize this debate and restrict his ability to cobble together the coalitions necessary to pursue his domestic agenda.
Two months ago, it would have been easy to argue that Obama was a bold risk taker for peace. Middle East envoy George Mitchell was traveling regularly to jumpstart talks between Israel and the Palestinians. In June, Obama gave a brilliant speech in Cairo viewed by many as a powerful step toward reconciliation with a suspicious Arab world. Diplomacy in Iran seemed to finally bear fruit after the United States and its partners presented Tehran with a scheme that would allow it to send its uranium away for processing in Russia and France. The Nobel Committee saw these efforts and rightly awarded the prize for the hope that they inspired.