Once the capital of a nation defined by inalienable rights; government of, by, and for the people; Fourteen Points; Four Freedoms; and “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall!,” Washington is today preoccupied with Anthony Weiner’s crotch and parsing Sarah Palin’s interpretation of Paul Revere’s ride as a defense of the Second Amendment. What used to be known as the people’s business is today becoming indistinguishable from farce. Whether our ruling class possesses the ability even to identify the matters deserving the attention of senior policymakers has become an open question.
Take Afghanistan, for example. A promised presidential decision on withdrawing some indeterminate number of troops—presumably initiating a process, again of indeterminate length, aimed at ending the war altogether—is forthcoming. A big deal? Not really. In fact, the question of troops levels in the war zone is barely worthy of presidential attention. Barack Obama should have more important things to attend to.
If the Afghanistan War is essential to the safety and well-being of the American people, then the president should allow the commanders entrusted with its prosecution considerable discretion in deciding both what they need to accomplish their assigned mission and how long it will take. Let Gen. David Petraeus make the call on the rate of withdrawal—on whether to withdraw any troops at all. If the president lacks confidence in Petraeus’s ability to manage the war, then he should find himself a new general.
If, on the other hand, the Afghanistan War is not essential to the safety and well-being of the American people—a position to which I subscribe—then the imperative is to end that war forthwith. We’ve already wasted too much money and too many lives in the “graveyard of empires.” Should General Petraeus entertain a different view, then the president should find himself a four-star willing to do the commander in chief’s bidding. As for the specific schedule of withdrawal, establish basic parameters and let the military figure out the details. Having Obama decide how many troops should come home this summer makes about as much sense as having LBJ and Robert McNamara pick bombing targets in North Vietnam.
More to the point, rather than expending energy and attention on a secondary question like the rate of Afghan troop withdrawals, Obama would be far better advised (and the country far better served) were he to attend to matters that do deserve presidential attention.
Here are three examples—national-security questions that the administration and Washington more broadly appear to be neglecting. I’ll bet you can come up with at least as many more.
First: What exactly should we learn from nearly a decade of warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan? Given all the frustrations and failures of that decade, one would hope that we’d learn a lot. The nation’s eagerness to forget Iraq even before it’s over suggests that we will learn nothing. We need a 9/11-Commission-style panel to conduct a broad, nonpartisan inquiry into every facet of what we used to call the Global War on Terror. The object: to figure out what went wrong and why. Constituting and empowering that panel is presidential business.
Second: Here’s Adm. Mike Mullen, lame-duck chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in Time magazine: "Long term, if the military drifts away from its people in this country, that is a catastrophic outcome we as a country can't tolerate, can't afford, in no way.” The fact is that we are staring that catastrophe in the face: the “gap” between American society and the United States military is real and growing. No one knows this better than those who serve in uniform. All of the emoting about “supporting the troops” cannot disguise this reality. Acknowledging and taking action to close that gap qualifies as presidential business. Thus far, Obama has been silent on the issue.
Third: Admiral Mullen has also publicly stated that the national debt constitutes “our biggest security threat.” Hyperbole? Maybe a little. But it’s not hyperbole to say that getting the nation’s fiscal house in order is a matter of considerable urgency. Of course, Obama is not in a position to cure Washington’s penchant for profligacy on his own. But if ever there were an issue that called for banging on the bully pulpit, this is it. The president has shown far too little leadership here.
In strategy, what separates the men from the boys is being able to distinguish between what’s central and what’s peripheral. In Washington today, that capacity appears all but nonexistent.
Remember the great Norma Desmond line? “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” The narcissists inhabiting Washington like to think they’re big. But the place itself has become oddly small: ingrown, imprisoned by habit, oblivious to its own growing irrelevance.