The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Eliot Cohen on the Afghan War

Esteemed professor and fellow AI board member Eliot Cohen recently appeared on the Hugh Hewitt Show (transcript) to discuss Obama’s Afghanistan speech last week.

The interview is worth reading in full, and emphasizes a few core Via Meadia points, including the need for the President to do a better job explaining to the country why we are fighting the war:

Well, I’m sure the White House would undoubtedly debate it. But look, for me, here’s the critical thing. I think an essential part of presidential leadership in wartime is explaining why you’re at war, why you think you’re going to succeed, and you know, how you see the road ahead as well as also the road that you’ve traveled. This is really the first time that he’s spoken on Afghanistan since that West Point speech. And there were a lot of other occasions when he should have done so, when he could have done so. And what this speech was about was really, we’re getting out of here. And the rhetoric is one of you know, we’re here just before the dawn, the people are tired of war, there’s a new light coming, this thing is coming to an end. Well, for sure it’s not going to come to an end for the Afghans. I mean, there’s nobody in Afghanistan who actually thinks this is the end of the Afghan war. I do think the message that he was trying to project is, to use his wording, that we’re going to leave Afghanistan responsibly. And I think that his message to the American people is very much one of I’ve wound down these two awful wars that I inherited, and I’ve done so in a responsible way. And in the general, he’s going to be trying to run on a foreign policy record which is superficially more plausible than his economic record, although I would argue in the end it really isn’t.

This is an important point that is often overlooked by those looking at Obama’s handling of the Afghan War. All too often, reporters and journalists look at poll numbers showing falling support for the war and conclude that Obama is making the right choice in giving the public what it wants and sticking to an early withdrawal deadline. But this misunderstands how support for a war is built. Despite repeated claims that Afghanistan, unlike Iraq, was a “war of necessity” that deserved our full attention, the President has spent remarkably little time reminding the country of its importance. Without the strong backing of the President it is small wonder that support for the war is low—if the man charged with carrying it out doesn’t consider it important enough to discuss, why should the rest of the country?

This is a shame. Our mission in Afghanistan is far from over, and it is still too soon for us to leave. Unfortunately, it looks more and more like we will be leaving, and soon.

Published on May 7, 2012 12:41 pm
  • thibaud

    “Without the strong backing of the President it is small wonder that support for the war is low”

    I’ve never cared much for Obama, in large measure because of his rank opportunism regarding our wars in Iraq, Afgh and globally vs Al Qaeda, but this new line of criticism isn’t fair.

    Whether you think Afghanistan was “the good war” and Iraq “the wrong war,” or both wars equally necessary (or both wars equally unnecessary) – it doesn’t matter anymore. We’ve lost. Our Afghan “allies” are useless, our Pakistani non-allies are stabbing us every chance they can, and our NATO allies have headed for the exits.

    It’s over, and it’s really pretty foolish at this point to ask Pres. Obama, or a Pres. Romney, to waste his very scarce political capital on a multi-decade sinkhole that probably should have been a brief punitive expedition.

    Obama is speaking softly and carrying a big drone. Plus using special ops adroitly all over the world. That’s exactly the right policy.

  • SteveMG

    If we can believe the Woodward book (“Obama’s Wars”) the president was as least as concerned, if not more, with “losing the whole Democratic Party” then with winning (however defined) in Afghanistan.

    I think it’s becoming increasingly clear that the plan was to try and stabilize things enough for a orderly withdrawal.

    Obama’s heart was never in this war despite all of his talk about it being a “war of necessity” and one that was vital to American security (see his speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center in 2008).

    As the saying goes, armies don’t fight wars, nations do. If the nation isn’t behind a war and the president doesn’t want to use political capital changing that view, there is simply nothing the greatest military in the history of the world can do about it. It’s not winnable.

  • John Barker

    WRM or some of our learned commentators need to discuss some of the possible scenarios which may result from Mr. Obama’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. One can be sure that the MSM will not dare mention it.

  • Raymond R

    Mr. Cohen’s opinions are well worth listening to. I just finished reading his excellent book “Conquered into Liberty: Two Centuries of Battles along the Great Warpath that Made the American Way of War”

  • http://inthisdimension.com alex scipio

    “Our mission in Afghanistan” is… what? Why?

    Do Republicans, in their love of the military, just keep on fighting regardless of any semblance of reason… just because we ARE fighting? Do Democrats just reflexively run-away from a fight – any fight? I don’t really care right now with regard to Afghanistan. We seem to be at the point reached by Colonel David Hackworth, one of America’s most decorated soldiers, when he threw-up his hands in Vietnam and said he’d never allow HIS son to fight there.

    A muslim zealot used Afghanistan to attack America. The then-government, which we had long ignored, refused to give him up. So we attacked them and put bin laden on the run. Capturing or killing bin laden was our original goal. Done. The conceit that we can, in historic terms, instantly make post-Enlightenment Westerners out of arguably the most tribal, illiterate and backward people on the planet is and always has been absurd. (And my brother taught physics in the University of Kabul in 1977, so I have some idea of what I speak.) If it remains our conceit that we can overturn the Koran and its teachings on women, liberty, freedom, law, reason, etc., and if this conceit is why we continue to waste Western lives (and there is NOTHING in the entire muslim world worth the life of one single Westerner, let alone one American), then we are crazy. And I am not some whacky leftist- I went to school at USAFA during Vietnam.

    It is not and cannot be America’s role to force the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the Age of Reason, the Information Age, or any other idea down the throats of people killing one another – and their own daughters – for a thousands years based on some tribal mythology.

    Had we understood history, and that limited war NEVER works, and total war almost always does (who was a better American military and economic ally: Japan or Germany in 1965, or Vietnam in 1995?). Had we truly understood history and our role as a Great Power, when bin laden was in Tora Bora – no farms or families or cities within tens of miles – we would have removed the entire top of the range with a couple of nuclear weapons, destroying bin laden and ensuring the world understood America was not playing-around, that we take Freedom and peace seriously, this would have been over thousands of irreplaceable American lives ago.

    Instead, we decided, again, and again incorrectly, that limited war would convince these midieval warriors that our toys were so cool they could never possibly win, when, of course, it is the will to win that wins wars, not cool toys. And of course they now are winning, or have won… because they, unlike we, have the will to do so.

    War is policy, not a manhood measurement. The Left hates ramification and consequences of actions, so no longer willingly goes to war (though wars entered under Democrat presidents account for 98% of all American KIA since 1812), and the GOP hates to stop fighting, seeing it as somehow more patriotic to keep throwing-away the lives not only of our best & brightest, but of the children those best & brightest will never have… just because we find ourselves on the field of combat.

    It is time to quit the field in Afghanistan, or to destroy the enemy. Stop wasting lives. If they attack us again, nuke them. If they don’t, but continue treating women as worthless, that’s THEIR problem, not mine, and certainly not my son’s. And if you don’t like the way they treat their women, don’t pretend you’re a “multicultural” person. But recognize this: It’s THEIR problem.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    Obama is by far the worst President in my lifetime, beating out Jimmy Carter for the title by a significant margin. If I wanted America to fail, I would chose Obama for President.

  • Brendan Doran

    What is our Mission in Afghanistan? Since it’s far from over – although we are done.

  • rkka

    “A muslim zealot used Afghanistan to attack America.”

    Actually, the attack was planned in Germany by Saudis/Pakistanis.

    On to Berlin/Riyadh/Islamabad, right Mead?

  • Kris

    Alex@5: “And my brother taught physics in the University of Kabul in 1977, so I have some idea of what I speak.”

    To the contrary, if a close gene-sharer of yours had such bad sense, it speaks poorly of your wisdom! :-)

  • Zhulfiqar

    It behooves WRM to mention that Prof. Cohen is also strongly and publicly connected to Romney’s election campaign.