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A New Way Forward: Right Makes Might

December 2, 2009

Last night President Obama outlined his administration’s strategy and plans for a troop build-up and eventual draw down of forces in Afghanistan during a 35-minute nationally-televised speech from the United States Military Academy at West Point.Two points stood out for me: One from the speech itself and one from the context.

At several points during the second half of the speech, the president reiterated his view that our national security and our homeland security are deeply intertwined. In particular, he emphasized connections between the cost of the war and the parlous state of our economy.

The president made a point of identifying how important it is for the American people to support the peoples of Afghanistan and Pakistan. In doing so he drew a connection between our efforts there and efforts over the past 60 years starting in Europe to build a wide range of international institutions that have enabled security and prosperity not only for the United States but for other nations as well.

In making this connection, the president explicitly directed our attention away from analogies with Vietnam and subtly encouraged us to consider our efforts in central Asia an extension of the policies that successfully ended the Cold War and led to the spread of liberal democracy across much of Eastern Europe. By connecting his agenda in the region with his nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament agenda as well, he made it clear that the connection is literal as well as rhetorical.

He mentioned the United Nations, the NATO alliance, and the World Bank as evidence of our success promoting economic as well as political liberalization without resorting to force or occupation. In doing so, however, he overlooked the menacing presence these institutions represent to some of our allies as well as a few of our own countrymen, some of whom fear globalization almost as much as than they fear Muslim extremists.

Recognizing that security in Afghanistan depends on development there and in neighboring Pakistan, the President committed the United States to a military engagement with a limited time horizon. At the same time, he clearly committed us to a more open-ended engagement to develop civil and economic institutions there conditioned only on accountability and continued cooperation.

The President acknowledged in his remarks that United States policy with respect to Pakistan, in particular, has interpreted cooperation and United States’ interests too narrowly. How he intends to broaden this perspective there while remaining true to his goal of disarmament remains unclear.

What is clear and was openly acknowledged by the President during the first half of his remarks is that the troop build-up will place a heavy burden on the nation’s already stretched armed forces and the young men and women who serve. Acknowledging this reality, the President spoke directly to the cadets seated before him: “As your commander in chief, I owe you a mission that is clearly defined and worthy of your service.”

According to the President, the nation’s interest and goals in Afghanistan and the region remain unchanged from the start of our intervention:

Our overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.

To meet that goal, we will pursue the following objectives within Afghanistan. We must deny al Qaeda a safe haven. We must reverse the Taliban’s momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s security forces and government so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s future.

The commitment of forces represents only one part of the President’s three-pronged strategy for achieving these objectives. Breaking the back of al Qaeda, the President insisted, depends upon reversing the momentum of the resurgent Taliban and creating a stable environment for Afghans who want to govern themselves peacefully to do so. This proscribed role for United States military forces may be achievable, but only with great difficulty and more bloodshed on both sides.

The President’s proposal recognizes that building civil capacity in Afghanistan and forging a durable partnership with Pakistan cannot be accomplished through the use of sticks. But it remains to be seen how effective the President’s carrots will be in a region where democracy is viewed not so much as a robust ideal as a fragile idea that requires constant care and attention so it can adapt to the harsh climate and conditions present there.

As the President addressed the sacrifices that lie ahead, the television cameras panned the room. As they did, I was struck by the fresh faces of some of America’s best and brightest seated before him in the auditorium and on display before the entire nation. Besides their obvious youth, something else was evident in their faces. Our armed forces and those we select and train to lead our all-volunteer force represent both America’s diversity and its promise. The ideal of democracy was reflected in their eyes.

If we succeed in Afghanistan, it will be because, as the President himself suggested, “right makes might” not the other way around. The young men and women of our armed forces are not just the right people to lead in the use of force against our enemies, they are a brilliant example of what our country can still do better than anyone else: Encourage service by promoting success in proportion to one’s commitment to cooperation and self-sacrifice.

This post also appears on HLSwatch.com.

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