In his book, "The Promise," about President Obama's first year in office, Jonathan Alter describes a brief conversation between the president and Vice President Joe Biden that took place last November at the end of Mr. Obama's long deliberation about what to do in Afghanistan.
Mr. Biden asked whether the new policy of beginning a significant withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in 2011 was a direct presidential order that could not be countermanded by the military. The president said yes.
The two men were on their way to a meeting in the Oval Office with members of the Pentagon brass who would be tasked with carrying out Mr. Obama's orders. Among those at the meeting was Gen. David Petraeus, then the chief of the United States Central Command, which included oversight of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. According to Mr. Alter, the president said to General Petraeus:
"David, tell me now. I want you to be honest with me. You can do this in eighteen months?"
Mr. Petraeus replied: "Sir, I'm confident we can train and hand over to the A.N.A. [Afghan National Army] in that time frame."
The president went on: "If you can't do the things you say you can in eighteen months, then no one is going to suggest we stay, right?"
"Yes, sir, in agreement," said General Petraeus.
Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was also at the meeting, and he added his own crisp, "Yes, sir."
That was then. The brass was just blowing smoke, telling the commander in chief whatever it was that he wanted to hear. Over the past several days, at meetings with one news media outlet after another, General Petraeus has been singing a decidedly different song. The lead headline in The Times on Monday said: "General Opposes a Rapid Pullout in Afghanistan."
Having taken over command of U.S. forces in Afghanistan after the ouster of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Mr. Petraeus is now saying he did not take that job in order to preside over a "graceful exit." His goal now appears to be to rally public opinion against the very orders that President Obama insisted, as he told Joe Biden, could not be countermanded.
Who's in charge here?
The truth is that we have no idea how the president really feels about the deadline he imposed for beginning a troop withdrawal. It always seemed peculiar to telegraph the start of a troop pullout while fighting (in this case, escalating) a war. And Mr. Obama has always been careful to ratchet up the ambiguity quotient by saying the start of any withdrawal would depend on conditions on the ground.
Anyone who has been paying attention knows that conditions on the ground right now are awful, so it looks as though we're going to be there for a long, long while.
This is a terrible thing to contemplate because in addition to the human toll (nearly half of all the American troop deaths in Afghanistan have occurred since Mr. Obama took office), the war is a giant roadblock in the way of efforts to deal effectively with deteriorating economic and social conditions here in the United States.
Look around at the economy, the public school system, the federal budget deficits, the fiscal conditions plaguing America's state and local governments. We are giving short shrift to all of these problems and more while pouring staggering amounts of money (the rate is now scores of billions of dollars a year) into a treacherous, unforgiving and hopelessly corrupt sinkhole in Afghanistan.
(I stand in awe of the heights of hypocrisy scaled by conservative politicians and strategists who demand that budget deficits be brought under control while cheering the escalation in Afghanistan and calling for ever more tax cuts here at home.)
The reason you hear so little about Lyndon Johnson nowadays despite his stupendous achievements — Medicare, Medicaid, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — is that Vietnam laid his reputation low. Johnson's war on poverty was derailed by Vietnam, and it was Vietnam that tragically split the Democratic Party and opened the door to the antiwar candidacies of Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy. The ultimate beneficiaries, of course, were Richard Nixon and the Republicans.
President Obama does not buy the comparison of Afghanistan to Vietnam, and he has a point when he says that the U.S. was not attacked from Vietnam. But Sept. 11, 2001, was nearly a decade ago, and the war in Afghanistan was hopelessly bungled by the Bush crowd. There is no upside to President Obama's escalation of this world-class fiasco.
We are never going to build a stable, flourishing society in Afghanistan. What we desperately need is a campaign of nation-building to counteract the growing instability and deterioration in the United States.