Archive for the ‘Afghanistan’ Category

Just the Beginning

332a64f4195b32b9555da335785b58d4It must have been about 1965 when my World War II veteran father had his gall bladder surgery.  As kid I wasn’t aware of many of the details, but I do remember that having the old man in the hospital for several days was a very big deal, particularly since we had to drive 100 miles or so round trip to visit him while he was recovering.

Gall bladder surgery in the 1960’s was a far different operation than it has become more recently and often resulted in several days in the hospital and then a good deal more rest at home.

We joked that Dad had the good sense not to show off his incision as Lyndon Johnson had done when he had the same surgery at about the same time. That classic LBJ moment still ranks as one of the most offbeat presidential photo ops.

Johnson, a Navy veteran of the war, had his surgery at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Washington. My Dad checked into the Veterans Administration hospital in Hot Springs, South Dakota. We had no health insurance. If we needed to see a doctor we paid cash or, as when Mom had some major surgery, we pulled the family belt a little tighter and went on the payment plan. My parents spent years paying off Mom’s surgery and hospital bills, but the VA was free. The country owed it to Staff Sergeant R.E. Johnson and his grateful nation took care of his gall bladder. It may have been one of the few things my old man had in common with Lyndon Johnson.

The VA has been much in the news lately and the commendable retired Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki, who took the fall for the obvious shortcomings of the big, sprawling federal bureaucracy, will doubtless go down in history as the general fired for speaking truth to the Bush Administration about the cost and duration of a war of choice in Iraq and then ended up walking the plank due to the failures of his agency to properly take care of many of the veterans of that war. Numerous commentators have made the obvious observation that firing Shinseki will do about as much to right the wrongs of the VA as firing him before the Iraq war did to bring sanity to that misbegotten policy. His tombstone might well read “fall guy.”

Amid all the posturing by political people over the mess at the Phoenix VA hospital, and apparently other VA hospitals, should hover a palpable sense of “you should have known better.” It’s pretty clear that the more than $150 billion we spend annually on the Veterans Administration isn’t nearly enough money to do the right job for the men and women who served their country and now often need very expensive and long-term care.

Yet, when Congress had a chance earlier this year to provide more resources for an agency that is chronically short of resources, for example, primary care physicians who spend all day seeing patients the legislation died during a Senate filibuster. There was hardly a ripple of regret for letting our veterans down.“I don’t know how anyone who voted ‘no’ today can look a veteran in the eye and justify that vote,” said Daniel M. Dellinger, national commander of the American Legion. “Our veterans deserve more than what they got today.”

Next time you see a member of Congress ask them how they voted on that one. It’s a pretty good measure of who really is “supporting the troops.”

Now given a fresh “political scandal,” – and this was certainly true before Gen. Shinseki made his inevitable exit – everyone wants to get aboard the bash the VA bandwagon.

As the old story goes the most dangerous place in Washington, D.C. is the space between a soundbite spouting politician, in this case outraged by the VA’s mismanagement, and a waiting television camera. There has been a genuine stampede to present the VA’s problems as the most recent thing that comes near be “worse than Benghazi…”

But, as noted, this was all readily foreseen and, in fact, rather widely forecast as recently as when the Iraq fiasco was still unfolding. Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz actually produced a study that predicted the long-term cost of the Iraq adventure would be $3 trillion - yes, “T” as in trillion dollars. Stilglitz was derided as a liberal alarmist whose analysis was wildly off the mark, but in 2010 he actually went back and re-ran the numbers and concluded that his huge number likely underestimated the true cost of the ten year war, in part, because he underestimated the health care costs of veterans that will only keep increasing for 30, 40 or 50 more years.

“About 25 percent of post-9/11 veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder,” according one recent report, “and 7 percent have traumatic brain injury, according to Congressional Budget Office analyses of VA data. The average cost to treat them is about four to six times greater than those without these injuries, CBO reported. And polytrauma patients cost an additional 10 times more than that.”

I remember this much about my Dad’s long ago medical care from the Veterans Administration: he had a gall bladder attack and in short order he was in the hospital for surgery. Maybe a few days at most passed from the attack to the cure and this was a VA dealing at the time with vets, like my Dad, who served during World War II. My favorite veteran died when he was 62 having never again set foot in a VA facility.

The young men and women who fought for us in Iraq and Afghanistan will likely live longer  – much longer we can hope – than the World War II generation, even with the many and varied traumatic injuries our soldiers bring home from the battlefield. We’re just starting to feel the impact of that sober reality on the VA and the rest of American society. This truly is just the beginning. Properly resourcing the VA and de-politicizing the process of fixing its shortcomings should be every bit as much a national priority as sending young people to war and keeping them there year-after-year.

“If there is any cause that should be bipartisan, it’s care for our veterans,” writes E.J. Dionne in the Washington Post. “But too often, what passes for bipartisanship is the cheap and easy stuff. It tells you how political this process has been so far that so many of the Democrats who joined Republicans in asking for Shinseki to go are in tough election races this fall.”

This much I know: the VA was there when my Dad needed the medical help that he would have been hard pressed to access and pay for any other way. It was literally a life saver. Now, having pounded our military with endless deployments in the open ended wars that are now apparently a fixture of America in the 21st Century, the bill for those shattered and scared is coming due. Brace yourselves. The cost is going to be far greater than anyone engaged in the current debate lets on and we have no choice but to dig deep and pay it.

Maybe Congress should fume and fuss as much about how our military is used as they do when the health care system, created by Congress by the way, falls short of serving all of our veterans.

 

Graveyard of Empires

“All along the north and northwest frontiers of India lie the Himalayas, the greatest disturbance of the earth’s surface that the convulsions of chaotic periods have produced.” That’s how Winston Churchill began his still highly readable 1897 book The Story of the Malakand Field Force.

Young Winston wrote from the British cavalry barracks in Bangalore where he was stationed as part of his deployment to the part of the world the Brits more than once tried to subdue. It worked, as Churchill’s book makes clear, about as well for them as it has for us.

 New Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has now limped home from his first surprise trip to Afghanistan reduced to admitting the obvious – “it’s complicated.” Hagel, a decorated Vietnam vet and, I suspect like many from his generation who served and fought he is a reluctant warrior. Hagel was dissed by the increasingly detestable Hamid Karzai who actually said during the secretary’s visit that Taliban acts of violence in Afghanistan proved a level of collusion with the United States. Karzai then cancelled a joint press conference with Hagel just to make his contempt for the fighting and dying done by American’s perfectly clear.

It should tell us something that Hagel – and all high level visiting Americans – need to make “surprise” visits to Afghanistan since the security situation is so tenuous. It’s clear some the attacks during the Hagel visit were meant to send a message. Is anyone listening?

Former New York Times columnist and Council on Foreign Relations chairman Leslie Gelb says, in a piece titled “To Hell With Karzai,” that it’s time for the Obama Administration “to stop letting these Karzai guys play us for suckers and speed up our exit, and stop wasting American lives and dollars.”

We’re finding – and, of course, this was completely predictable – that getting into Afghanistan was a whole lot easier than getting out. Like Vietnam and Iraq before, we have met the limits of our ability to project force to change politics and history on the ground, this time in the shadow of the Himalayas.

It was a fool’s errand to try in the first place, but makes even less sense to prolong the effort. We will eventually leave Afghanistan and the departure will signal a return of the tribal wars and turmoil that have been a fixture of the place for hundreds of years. It’s difficult, almost impossible, for a superpower to admits its limits, to admit that we cannot always be the positive, democratic role model we so desperately believe to be our destiny, but doing so – admitting the limits of western power in an ancient tribal culture – is the beginning of realism and maybe, just maybe, the beginning of a better approach.

“Except at times of sowing and of harvest, a continual state of feud and strife prevails throughout the land,” Churchill wrote of Afghanistan (and Pakistan) more than 115 years ago. “The people of some valley fight with those of the next. To the quarrels of communities are added the combats of individuals. Khan assails khan, each supported by his retainers. Every tribesman has a blood feud with his neighbor. Every man’s hand is against the other, and all against the stranger.”

And we are the strangers. As of this morning 2,050 Americans have died and more than 18,000 have been wounded in this place where strife prevailed before we arrived and will prevail after we are gone.

 

War and Congress

Burton K. Wheeler was a Democrat who served as United States Senator from Montana from 1922-1946. His career, as he acknowledged in his memoir, was full of controversy. Among other things, Wheeler was indicted on corruption charges and fought with powerful interests ranging from the mining companies in his adopted state to Franklin Roosevelt, a man he had once enthusiastically endorsed for president.

The FBI followed him, particularly after he criticized Roosevelt’s foreign policy prior to American entry into World War II. His patriotism was assaulted. He was deemed a Nazi sympathizer by some. He helped stop Roosevelt’s Supreme Court power play in 1937 and championed important legislation impacting utility companies and Native Americans. If you are defined in politics by your enemies, Wheeler had many. His friends included Charles Lindbergh, William E. Borah, Joe Kennedy, Huey Long and Harry Truman. He was considered a serious presidential contender in 1940. FDR put an end to that with his third term.

Wheeler’s kind of senator really doesn’t exist anymore. Senators of his generation were, of course, from their respective states, but they represented more than local interests. Wheeler and Borah and Robert Wagner and Pat Harrison, who I wrote about recently, were national legislators and the Senate was their stage. Wheeler walked that stage most prominently in 1941 when Americans were profoundly divided over how far the nation should go to provide aid to Great Britain during some of the darkest days in the history of western civilization. Wheeler battled, as he called them, “the warmongers” who he thought were altogether too eager to get the country involved in another European war.

Wheeler lost this “great debate,” the U.S. did come to the aid of the battered Brits, Japan attacked in Hawaii and the Montana senator eventually lost his seat in the Senate. This is a story I’ve tried to tell in the most recent issue of Montana – the Magazine of Western History, the respected history journal published by the Montana Historical Society.

At first blush Wheeler’s fight for non-intervention in 1941 seems like ancient history. Americans fought the good and necessary war to stop fascism and the Greatest Generation is justly celebrated. But, like so much of our history, the fight over American foreign policy prior to Pearl Harbor has a relevance that echoes down to us more than 70 years later as the morning headlines tell of President Obama’s parley in the Oval Office with Hamid Karzai.

We are apparently at the end of the beginning of our longest war. Americans have been fighting and dying in the mountains and deserts and streets of Afghanistan for nearly a dozen years. As we prepare to leave that “graveyard of empires” (leave more or less) the question is begged – have we accomplished what we intended?  And when we are gone will we leave behind such a corrupt, incompetent government that the Taliban and assorted other bad guys will again quickly take charge?

Before 1941, when Montana’s Wheeler and others raised their objection to an interventionist foreign policy, the United States was comfortable with a modest role in the world. The county was stunned by the violence and by what seemed at the time to be the ultimate futility of the Great War. During the 1920’s and 1930’s Americans embraced their traditional attitude of remaining aloof from European disputes, gladly eschewed any ambition to supplant the British as the world’s policeman and the country happily retreated behind two deep oceans. After 1941, hardened by the trials of another world war and the threat of Communist expansionism, Americans embraced a national security state and we have never really looked back.

Today, as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders points out, the United States spends more on its military than the rest of the world’s nations combined and we’ve tripled defense spending since the mid-1990’s. Despite the sobering experience of Vietnam, we rather casually, at least by 1941 standards, deploy our troops around the world with certain belief that such power can impact all events. Americans have been camped in Europe since 1945 – 80,000 are still deployed – protecting our NATO allies who increasing reduce their own military outlays.

After a nine year war in Iraq, a dozen years in Afghanistan, with deployments and bases from Australia to Turkey, and given the need to confront a national fiscal crisis one might think that America’s aggressively interventionist foreign policy would be at the center of Washington’s debates, but no. Once the U.S. Senate had such debates; debates that engaged the American public and where Congress asserted its Constitutional responsibility to actually declare war. But even after September 11 the national foreign policy “debate’ has more often been about the need to expand and deploy American power, rather than how to make it more effective. The current shaky state of the nation’s budget would seem reason enough to really have a foreign and defense policy debate again, but even more importantly Americans and their leaders should, with cold and calculating focus, assess our role in the world.

George W. Bush once famously advocated a “humble” foreign policy and disowned “nation building.” Bush’s rhetoric, of course, hardly matched his policy and a dozen years later, with little debate and perhaps even less sober reflection, we wind down a war that likely will again offer new proof of the limits of American power.

Montana’s Wheeler lost his seat in the U.S. Senate in 1946 largely because he was deemed out of touch with the post-war world. His old-fashioned attitudes about expressing American power were out of fashion. But were they? At least he forced a debate; a debate similar to the one that we need again today.

 

Obama the Warrior

No More Soft on National Security

One of the great strategies in politics is to take your opponent’s greatest strength and turn that advantage  into a liability. It’s not easy to do, but when it’s done well it can be brutally effective.

The “swiftboating” of Sen. John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic candidate for president, is perhaps the best example in recent memory of how effective attacking the strength of an opponent can be. 

In Kerry’s case, a legitimate war hero – the guy was awarded the Silver and Bronze Stars and three Purple Hearts for service in Vietnam – became, thanks to attacks on that military record, a questionable patriot, a liar and, in some minds, a fraud. “Swiftboating” has now entered the political lexicon as a verb meaning – to smear effectively.

You may remember that when Kerry accepted the presidential nomination in 2004 he stepped to the podium and saluted, military style. That was the beginning of the end. While it was obvious to most independent observers that Kerry didn’t deserve the swiftboat attacks and was obviously caught off guard by charges that turned the truth on its head, it’s also true that he  and his campaign did a horrible job responding. Still, the well-bankrolled truth turning – an early glimpse of what we’ll see this fall from Super PAC’s – worked remarkably well and George W. Bush, the guy who actually had avoided Vietnam service, got re-elected.

[I'll offer the not terribly original prediction that the "swiftboating" of John Kerry will be studied years from now by political analysts as a classic example of a big smear that was improperly handled by the candidate-victim.]

The 2004 attacks on Kerry also worked, in part, because they seemed to confirm a narrative, dating back to George McGovern in 1972, that Democrats just aren’t as truthworthy when it comes to the nation’s security as Republicans. Ironically, McGovern, a decorated World War II bomber pilot who opposed the Vietnam War, also did not – or chose not – to make a virtue of his distinguished military record. Not until Stephen Ambrose’s 2001 book – The Wild Blue - that featured McGovern’s story did many Americans know that the South Dakota senator and presidential candidate was a genuine, if deeply conflicted, hero of the Greatest Generation.

Now comes Barack Obama and the anniversary of the Navy Seal mission to – use the President’s term – “take out” Osama bin Laden. As TIME’s Jon Meacham has written, Republicans are “shocked, shocked” that the Obama team is taking credit, politicizing if you will, the bringing to justice of the world’s foremost terrorist.

“Here, however, is the issue,” Meacham writes. “Since at least 1968, Democrats have traditionally been more circumspect than their Republican foes in presidential politics. The lesson of the Clinton years and of Obama’s win of both the nomination and the general election in 2008 is that Democrats need to be as tough as JFK was (tough was a favorite Kennedy term). Is the bin Laden ad fair to Romney? No, not really. But politics is not for the faint of heart.”

Here’s my take: Obama has so far been successful in taking away from Republicans one of the historically sharpest arrows in their quiver. Try as they might, Republicans and their presidential candidate can’t pull a Kerry or McGovern on Obama. The GOP and some commentators charge that Obama has overplayed the bin Laden events of a year ago and maybe so, but here’s the issue in that regard: any day Mitt Romney is talking about foreign policy, and he’s been talking about it for days, is a bad day for his campaign.

Obama owns these issues in a way that no Democrat has favorably owned a set of foreign policy issues since Franklin Roosevelt was in the White House. Count on Obama to make the case as the campaign goes forward that he inherited two wars, shut one down in the face of critics who said he was wrong to do so, and then gave the order to take out the guy who made the other war, Afghanistan, necessary.

Frankly, Republicans and Romney, in particular, are committing political malpractice by attempting to compete with the president on these issues. Rather than going to a New York City firehouse yesterday to remember 9-11, Romney should have gone to a military hospital and quietly met with a few soldiers after issuing a statement congratulating the Navy Seals for getting bin Laden. He looks weak and guilty of “me, too” when he says he’d have given the order to go after the Al Quada leader, particularly since he suggested during the last campaign that he wouldn’t.

Romney’s campaign will succeed or fail on the basis of whether he presents a coherent economic message backed by a strategy for growing jobs and economic security for Americans. The Obama campaign has rope-a-doped their opponent into punching below his weight on foreign policy, certainly not the issues Romney wants to run on, and every day that happens, Romney loses.

 As for the charge that Obama is overplaying the bin Laden success, give that great political analyst Jon Stewart the last word. After all, George W. Bush landed on an aircraft carrier and proclaimed Mission Accomplished in Iraq, or as Stewart said, “he spiked the ball before the game began.” Stewart’s point: Bush, like Obama, would have ridden the issue of being the good guy who got the bad guy as far as possible. In a very basic sense, Obama is again capitalizing on statements from Romney’s past that today look less than, well, astute.

Obama may be overplaying the events of a year ago, but as the baseball great Dizzy Dean once said, “it ain’t braggin’ if you can back it up.”

 

Reflections

Ten Years On…

Amid the tenth anniversary reflections over the terror attacks on New York and Washington there is much to ponder, remember and regret, including our response and its effectiveness.

Bill Keller, just stepped down as the top editor at The New York Times, used the tenth anniversary to revisit his own cheerleading for the Iraq war. Keller concludes “I think Operation Iraqi Freedom was a monumental blunder.”

No such reflection or any second thoughts from former Vice President Dick Cheney who told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, “I think we made exactly the right decision (regarding the invasion of Iraq.)”

The weekend’s commemoration of September 11, 2001 was remarkably free of politics, but 9-11 and the war on terror, as Politico points out, continues to infuse our politics.

“Even as voters grow weary of the nation’s wartime footing,” Alexander Burns and Maggie Haberman write at Politico, “Democrats and Republicans continue to seek out opportunities to wield the memory of 9/11 for electoral gain — whether that means using the Guantanamo Bay detention center as a wedge issue, courting the support of firefighters and police or attacking a proposed Islamic center near ground zero.”

So much was lost ten years ago and it is altogether fitting and proper that we regret and mourn that loss. We will do so for as long as people are alive who remember that day. But, we might do well to also reflect on the fleeting nature of the profound desire that existed in the days immediately after September 11 to come together as a country, share both grief and sacrifice and get our national response correctly calibrated. The Spirit of September 12, needless to say, did not last long.

Historian Julian Zelizer writes that our passion for partisanship couldn’t be overcome even by the tragedy of 9/11.

“Could the promise of September 12 ever be fulfilled,” Zelizer asks. “Certainly today there are enormous areas of consensus between the parties, such as over most counterterrorism policies, over the need for strong homeland security programs and even for strong military vigilance with countries such as North Korea and Pakistan.

“Nonetheless, the partisan forces that play out on the campaign trail are simply too great to overcome. If 9/11 taught us anything, it’s how deeply rooted partisanship is in our modern political culture. Even a tragedy of its magnitude could barely contain the forces that perpetually rip apart members of the two parties.

“Ten years ago, the parties came together. But they came together just for a brief spell. In the long span of history, it was as if the moment ended before either side could even blink.”

More serious than even the partisanship of our politics is the general failure of real reflection and analysis in the wake of that terrible day ten years back. A Dick Cheney can’t even hint that he has had a moment of pause considering all that has happened in a decade, including wars costing thousands of lives and perhaps $4 billion in treasure.

But reflect we must and not just on the horrible losses of a decade ago. Fareed Zakaria and others ask are we safer, was our response to 9/11 truly effective, have we improperly compromised our civil liberties and the American reputation for respecting the “rule of law,” has the re-ogranization of our intelligence system worked, and are we fated to wage an endless “war on terror?”

It is worth remembering, as Zakaria does, that “on the day before 9/11 the U.S. was at peace, had a large budget surplus, and oil was $28 a barrel. Today the U.S. is engaged in military operations across the globe, has a deficit of 1.5 trillion dollars and oil is $115 a barrel.”

A new Rasmussen survey says 66% of Americans think the country has “changed for the worst” since 9/11 and fewer than 50% think we’re winning our war on terror. To believe such surveys is to believe that the American people know that we haven’t gotten it right. As the past weekend illustrates, we remember well enough, but do we accumulate much knowledge along with the memory?

Bin Laden is dead and by most accounts his vastly diminished terror network is on the run, but it’s impossible to think – ten years on – that we are anywhere close to the end of the era that began on that spectacular September day a decade ago. Where do we go now? How will we know without more real reflection, without more effort at taking stock and admitting that maybe – just maybe – we have more learning to do?

A question for us – a question that really honors those who perished on 9/11 and in the wars that followed – is whether we will be smart enough to really assess the effectiveness of our response to the tragedy, and adjust as necessary, so that 20 or 50 years on the children of the victims of 9/11 will live in country that not only remembers their loss, but has learned from it as well.

 

Obama’s Wars

Illusions of Omnipotence

There is a remarkably telling scene 350 pages into Bob Woodward’s detailed and depressing new book about Barack Obama’s decision last year to send 30,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan. The story tells us all we need to know about the triple bank shot strategy we are following in Afghanistan and how likely it is to fail.

In May of this year, as Woodward tells it, months after the President’s national security team had coalesced around the current Afghanistan strategy, Obama was briefed in the White House Situation Room about the political and military status of the geographic center of the American effort – the Afghan city of Kandahar.

The then-American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, “presented a map of Kandahar and its suburbs that attempted to lay out the tribal dynamics,” Woodward writes. “It was a crazy quilt of overlapping colors that resembled a piece of modern art.”

Woodward recounts in Obama’s Wars, his new bestseller, that the details of the 20 tribes represented at the heart of the Taliban insurgency “would almost require a Ph.D. in Afghan culture for an American to comprehend.” During that same briefing, McChrystal also presented to the President slides identifying more than three dozen political power brokers in Kandahar. The general was attempting to show who in the Taliban hierarchy was jockeying for influence and authority. The slides and photos illustrated a hugely complex set of rivalries, loyalties, crime, corruption, family relationships and ambitions.

After studying the slides for some time, Obama said, “This reminds me of Chicago politics…you’re asking me to understand the interrelationships and interconnections between ward bosses and district chiefs and the tribes of Chicago like the tribes of Kandahar. And I’ve got to tell you, I’ve lived in Chicago for a long time, and I don’t understand that.”

McChrystal, Woodward writes, quipped amid much laughter,”If we are going to do Chicago, we’re going to need more troops.” A funny line, but chilling in what it says about the reality of impacting a place and people with which we have such a limited understanding. If understanding Chicago politics is tough, Kandahar must be next to impossible.

With the nation and the media completely preoccupied with the looming mid-term elections, it’s worth noting that a full on review of U.S. and NATO progress in Afghanistan is scheduled, as part of Obama’s strategy, for the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas. One suspects the review will not bring much holiday cheer.

While American and NATO officials have recently reported the deaths of hundreds of Taliban leaders, the Associated Press also reports that many Taliban attacks continue, including the killing of the deputy mayor of Kandahar and numerous police officials. And, while the Taliban may be in the process of being “degraded,” that’s the word Obama settled on to explain the current objective regarding the insurgents, it may be just as true that the Taliban, still able to move with relative ease back and forth across the Pakistani frontier, is merely standing down in anticipation of regrouping and refitting during the Afghan winter.

Meanwhile, a critical pillar of Obama’s strategy – improvement in the operations and honesty of the Afghan government – remains in serious doubt. As Woodward’s almost day-by-day account of the development of the Afghan strategy points out, getting the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai to behave and perform better is absolutely essential to the goals of disrupting the Taliban, quickly turning the fight over to the Afghans and drawing down American troops. As further proof of how difficult it is going to be to create a stable, unifying government in Afghanistan, the recent flurry of coverage suggesting that secret reconciliation talks between Karzai’s government and the Taliban have been held has been forcefully denied by Taliban leaders.

Reading Woodward’s book is a bit like watching a well known old motion picture, one you have seen so many times that you can mouth the lines right along with the actors. There is an unmistakable feeling that we’ve seen this movie before and the ending never changes.

In his recent Washington Post review of Obama’s Wars, Neil Sheehan, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of one of the definitive books on the American experience in Vietnam, notes that Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan – pressed by his national security advisers – is based on a large dollop of hope and a 21st Century updating of Richard Nixon’s last ditch strategy of “Vietnamization.” But hope is an attitude, not a strategy, and turning that earlier war over to an incompetent government that couldn’t command broad support didn’t work.

“The Taliban obviously cannot defeat the U.S. Army in set-piece battles,” Sheehan writes, “but it does not have to do that to win a war. It can bleed us of men and treasure, year after year, until the American people have had enough.” The old movie plays on.

In a brilliant synthesis of the last 100 years of American foreign policy, presidential historian Robert Dallek recently described what he called “the tyranny of metaphor” – three enduring illusions that have shaped every president’s reaction to world events since Woodrow Wilson.

Writing in Foreign Policy magazine, Dallek says one of the enduring myths of our foreign policy is “the surefire effectiveness of military strength in containing opponents.” Dallek, one of the historians Obama has consulted since moving into the White House, says the President has a nuanced and realistic view of what military power can accomplish and Woodward makes it clear that Obama has pressed his military advisers hard and constantly to justify their recommendations with regard to troop numbers and strategy. Nonetheless, when his exhaustive Afghanistan review was finished a year ago, Obama essentially accepted a “split the difference” option between what Gen. David Petraeus wanted for Afghanistan and what much more skeptical advisers were urging on the President.

One can’t help but think that while it is encouraging that Obama has displayed, to invoke the old phrase, a minimum high regard for the omnipotence of our brave and overworked military, he has also embraced a path in Afghanistan based more on hope than reason; more on what we’d like to happen than what history tells us is likely to happen.

Near the end of the Woodward book, Obama is quoted as telling his generals, “Be careful we don’t start something for which we don’t have resources to enable completion.” He then adds, “keep thinking about how we’ll know if we are succeeding and when we’ll know.”

Woodward’s book brilliantly captures the division over Afghanistan that exists among civilian and military advisers to the President, not to mention the competing views inside the military, even while Obama attempts to find a plausible path that might address the enormously difficult, perhaps impossible, task of working our will on corrupt governments whose fundamental objectives are rarely in sync with our own.

It is gratifying to see Obama and his advisers struggling mightily to get their arms around this ten year war, but at the same time tragic to see yet another administration tossed on the rocks of American illusions of omnipotence.

Come Christmas, the expected outcomes of the Congressional mid-terms and the election’s impact on the next two years of Obama’s presidency may be among the least of the Commander in Chief’s problems. Lyndon Johnson came to regard Vietnam as the “bitch of a war” that wrecked his presidency. Afghanistan, on top of a broken economy and a fractured political system at home, is really threatening to become the same for Obama.