All in. All out. Double down. Withdraw. The language of the Afghanistan debate is stark, as seem the choices. But at least the debate has begun, forced by the blunt recent comments of Gen. Stanley McChrystal. It is overdue. At the very least, less than a full airing of all the facts, realities, challenges and possibilities in that region shows insufficient respect and gratitude toward those we’ve put in harm’s way.
Nobody, really, is certain what to do, or wherein lies wisdom. It isn’t a choice between right and wrong or “clearly smart” versus “obviously stupid” so much as a choice between two hells, or more than two.
The hell of withdrawal is what kind of drama would fill the vacuum, who would re-emerge, who would be empowered, what Pakistan would look like with a newly redrawn reality in the neighborhood, what tremors would shake the ground there as the U.S. troops march out. It is the hell of a great nation that had made a commitment in retreat, abandoning not only its investment of blood and treasure but those on the ground, and elsewhere, who had one way or another cast their lot with us. It would involve the hell, too, of a U.N. commitment, an allied commitment, deflated to the point of collapse.
The hell of staying is equally clear, and vivid: more loss of American and allied troops, more damage to men and resources, an American national debate that would be a continuing wound and possibly a debilitating one, an overstretched military given no relief and in fact stretched thinner, a huge and continuing financial cost in a time when our economy is low. There is no particular guarantee of, or even completely persuasive definition of, success. And Pakistan may blow anyway.
The debate is over which hell is less damaging in the long term, which hell is more livable.
In the immediate term, we should move slowly. In an unstable time, in an unstable environment, with many movable pieces and uncertain dynamics, the best thing to do, often, is nothing dramatic. When all is excitable, move deliberately, thoughtfully. Listen, weigh and consider, with the emphasis on listen.
To what? To the serious testimony we should all be hearing so we can reach something like rough consensus on the long term.
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So far, oddly, most of the debate over Afghanistan has taken place among journalists and foreign-policy professionals. All power to them: They’ve been fighting it out on op-ed pages and in journals for months now, in many cases with a moral seriousness, good faith, and sense of protectiveness toward the interests of the United States that is, actually, moving. But nobody elected them. We need a truly national debate. The closest we’ve come to the starting of one was the stunning McChrystal interview two weeks ago on “60 Minutes.” He was cuffed by his superiors for some of his comments, and rightly so—we have a chain of command, and certain ways and traditions—but he clearly knew his candor carried a price, was willing to pay it and for what seemed to be high motives: We’ve got to get this right, Washington has to get serious, and the American people have a right to know the facts and options. It was impolitic and patriotic. Good for him.
But Afghanistan is a great American undertaking, and we are at a signal moment. We know, more or less and for better or worse, what Bush policy was until 2009: stay and fight. Now we’re closing on 2010. What is the policy of the new era?
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It is strange—it is more than strange, and will confound the historians of the future—that Gen. McChrystal has not been asked to testify before Congress about Afghanistan, about what the facts are on the ground, what is doable, what is desirable, how the war can be continued, and how it can end. He—and others, including experienced members of the military past and present, and foreign-policy professionals—should be called forth to talk to the country in the clearest terms under questioning from our elected representatives.
Before the surge in Iraq, we had the Petraeus hearings, which were nothing if not informative, and helped form consensus. Two generations earlier, we had the Fulbright hearings on Vietnam, which were in their way the first formal, if deeply and inevitably contentious, airing of what was at stake there and what our position was.
Why are we not doing this now? Why are we treating Afghanistan almost like an afterthought, interesting and important but not as urgent a question as health care?
It’s not as if the stakes aren’t as high as they were in Iraq, and Vietnam. It’s not as if our decisions won’t have repercussions that echo down the decades.
A few members of Congress have begun calling for hearings. Democrat Ike Skelton of the House Armed Services Committee told this newspaper that “it would be useful” to hear Gen. McChrystal speak of his proposed strategy. Rep. Skelton said he’d like to hear it from “the horse’s mouth.” Missouri’s Republican senator, Kit Bond, has noted that while the president may not want to hear from Gen. McChrystal, Congress does.
But no hearings are scheduled. Why? The Pentagon doesn’t want them. A spokesman said Gen. McChrystal should be working the war, not in Washington “wading into the debate.” But Afghanistan will be settled in Washington, not Kabul, and the debate has already begun.
Which gets us to the commander in chief, who directs the secretary of defense, who runs the Pentagon. The president, as almost all have noted—and for once, almost all are correct—has not distinguished himself in this matter. Afghanistan is a necessary war or not, we’ll see. He famously talked to Gen. McChrystal only once in the latter’s first 70 days in Afghanistan. He is meeting with advisers, considering options. Would that he’d begun earlier.
At the moment he seems a sort of anti-Lincoln. President Lincoln was early on damaged by Gen. George McClellan’s leaking to his friends in the press, but Lincoln every day was focused on one thing, the war, and took no offense. He knew what was urgent. For Mr. Obama, many things are urgent. But when many things are urgent, nothing really is urgent.
Mr. Obama reportedly began intensive meetings on the future of Afghanistan in the past few weeks. Lincoln used to go to McClellan’s house down the street from the White House and wait in the parlor for a chance at deliberations. One night when McClellan wasn’t in the mood, he came home from a party and sent a servant to say the general was too tired. Lincoln, being Lincoln, laughed, and left. He’d take anything from someone who might win. And when he concluded McClellan couldn’t win, he removed him, with no malice and complete coldness.
One senses Afghanistan has been waiting in the president’s parlor. Now that’s he’s focused, and deliberating, why not include the public?
What is said might box in the president, and Congress, but only because they’ve left a void. Hearings would illuminate issues, air differences, broaden the picture, and make clear the stakes. And all of those things would help spur decisions that spring from a thing badly needed, consensus.