Deserving of respect

No matter what you think of the president’s Afghanistan policy, there’s no denying the sincerity of his approach

It’s possible to disagree with President Obama’s decision to send more troops to Afghanistan and nevertheless respect it. That’s because nobody, not the president or anyone who might disagree with him, can know with any certainty what the best course is for the United States to take in that country. There is no easy route to take, no decision to be made that doesn’t seem to create as many problems as it solves. And it’s clear that he’s studied the situation from every angle, weighed all the options, and made what he believes is the best decision.

Unlike George W. Bush, who seemed to relish being a “war president,” Obama would rather be working on building a stronger America. As he said at West Point, in his speech explaining his Afghanistan decision, in recent years Americans “have failed to appreciate the connection between our national security and our economy.” Spending the national treasure on war goes against all he believes in, but he’s willing to do so now—and to suspend some of the prized goals of his presidency in the process—because he believes it’s the right thing to do.

We respect, too, his deep awareness of the profundity of his decision. He’s said it was the most difficult one he’s made as president, and we don’t doubt that. In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Oslo, he addressed in the most direct of terms his ownership of the decision: “[W]e are at war, and I’m responsible for the deployment of thousands of young Americans to battle in a distant land. Some will kill, and some will be killed.” Barack Obama doesn’t sugarcoat reality, nor does he back away from it.

What strikes us about his decision, and the explanation he gave for it at West Point, is that it suggests his primary goal is to get the United States out of Afghanistan as soon as possible—and under suitable conditions. Had he not ordered in more troops, the war—already the longest in American history—could have gone on indefinitely, while the despised Taliban slowly reasserted control over the country.

The president inherited a botched war in Afghanistan, but to his credit he’s fully accepted responsibility for turning it around. Whether the United States can push back the Taliban, train Afghan forces sufficiently to stand up, convince the Karzai regime to crack down on corruption, help build the infrastructure of a functioning society and government, and cajole and bribe “moderate” Taliban to come in from the cold remains to be seen. We’ll know in 18 months.