The request for additional forces by the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, poses cruel dilemmas for President Obama. If he refuses the recommendation and General McChrystal's argument that his forces are inadequate for the mission, Obama will be blamed for the dramatic consequences. If he accepts the recommendation, his opponents may come to describe it, at least in part, as Obama's war. If he compromises, he may fall between all stools—too little to make progress, too much to still controversy. And he must make the choice on the basis of assessments he cannot prove when he makes them.
This is the inextricable anguish of the presidency, for which Obama is entitled to respect from every side of the debate. Full disclosure compels me to state at the beginning that I favor fulfilling the commander's request and a modification of the strategy. But I also hope that the debate ahead of us avoids the demoralizing trajectory that characterized the previous controversies in wars against adversaries using guerrilla tactics, especially Vietnam and Iraq.
Each of those wars began with widespread public support. Each developed into a stalemate, in part because the strategy of guerrillas generally aims at psychological exhaustion. Stalemate triggered a debate about the winnability of the war. A significant segment of the public grew disenchanted and started questioning the moral basis of the conflict. Inexorably, the demand arose for an exit strategy with an emphasis on exit and not strategy.
The demand for an exit strategy is, of course, a metaphor for withdrawal, and withdrawal that is not accompanied by a willingness to sustain the outcome amounts to abandonment. In Vietnam, Congress terminated an American role even after all our troops had, in fact, been withdrawn for two years. It remains to be seen to what extent the achievements of the surge in Iraq will be sustained there politically.
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