What do the BP crisis and America’s quagmire in Afghanistan have in common?
Nothing and everything.
The “everything” connection involves the decision-making of our young president in the face of crisis.
Before the BP catastrophe struck — and it is a giant one — President Obama’s most significant foreign policy crisis as the nation’s commander in chief involved Afghanistan.
During his first year in office, Obama had a clear choice. He could de-escalate our involvement in an unwinnable war being played out on some of the most difficult terrain on the planet, a place that had become a veritable junkyard of empires that failed to conquer the mountainous region. He could take the prudent advice of his vice president.
Joe Biden said U.S. interests in Afghanistan were limited, and our role there should be focused on counterterrorism with a slim force supporting and advising the Karzai government.
Instead, Obama deferred to the generals, signing on to a significant surge and a full-scale counterinsurgency effort to eradicate the Taliban and an almost non-existent al-Qaida, which has already moved on to Yemen and Pakistan.
Over a year has passed since Obama’s Afghan surge. Nevertheless, the situation has deteriorated as U.S. forces exercise little control over the country, Balkanized as it is by tribal-controlled regions.
Citing congressional sources, on Tuesday The Washington Post reported that “the U.S. military is funding a massive protection racket in Afghanistan, indirectly paying tens of millions of dollars to warlords, corrupt public officials and the Taliban to ensure safe passage of its supply convoys throughout the country.”
The top military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. McChrystal, reportedly is angry at the Obama administration, blaming them for not fully supporting his efforts and even suggesting that he has been betrayed by the U.S. envoy to Kabul, Rolling Stone magazine reports.
What a mess.
But it is one Obama, who had been a sharp critic of President Bush’s Iraq strategy, should have foreseen.
A president must always remember the buck always stops on his desk, not the military’s.
When President Reagan woke up one morning in 1983 and discovered 241 Marines and other military personnel had died in a terror attack in Beirut, he most assuredly received military recommendations of retaliation and plans to grow our role there. Instead, Reagan realized that “managing” the Lebanese civil war for a decade or more would be pointless, not in America’s vital interest and cost countless American lives.
Reagan smartly withdrew from our police action there, despite the attack.
There are lessons here for President Obama and Afghanistan, though the circumstances are not exactly the same. We entered Afghanistan, understandably, after the horrific attacks of 9/11 and justifiably moved to destroy al-Qaida and remove the Taliban, their protectors, from power.
But nine years later al-Qaida has moved on and the Taliban, like a pesticide-resistant weed, won’t disappear. Our forces have been degraded to paying the Taliban and warlords for protection and turning a blind eye to the rampant drug trade there.
In my view, Obama could have hit a home run early in his administration by asserting himself and taking Joe Biden’s advice. Poll data at the time showed a reduction in U.S. forces in Afghanistan would have been popular with Democrats, independents, and even Republicans.
Such a decision would have been savvy, not just from a geo-political view, but an economic one. The cost of the Iraq and Afghan war has now exceeded a trillion dollars. The American taxpayer cannot afford to have large standing armies in countries that don’t want us, where national interests are not at stake.
So where does BP come into the mix?
I cannot help but think this environmental and economic crisis has been compounded by Obama’s decision-making process. This time he didn’t defer to the “generals” — but instead to the experts at BP.
For over a month, as oil spilled into the Gulf, Obama’s White House wrung its hands, saying BP was handling the matter, as they could do it better than the U.S. government.
Maybe they could, but was this any matter to leave in the hands of a private company that caused the disaster in the first place?
Over 60 days since the spill began, we can see the failure of putting the people who caused the catastrophe in charge of it.
We still don’t know whether the spill was caused by an accident or gross negligence on BP’s part.
We do know they have been lying from an early stage in the crisis, when they claimed that only several thousand barrels of oil per day were spewing into the Gulf.
Just this past weekend, Congressman Edward Markey, D-Mass., revealed that internal BP documents show that the oil company estimated the actual spillage could be as high as 100,000 barrels a day.
Meanwhile, the public relations handling of the case by both BP and the Obama White House has been simply disastrous.
I have no problem with the president golfing. Criticism of his leisure activities is a cheap shot. But I think it is fair to sharply critique the president for not having the federal government aggressively take control of the disaster early on, for allowing BP to control the response, and for deferring command when he alone is in command.
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