The war in Afghanistan may be a situation with no good outcomes. This means Barack Obama faces the kind of decision every president dreads: choosing the lesser evil.
Public opinion is mostly divided into two camps — one that holds that we must do whatever necessary and another that insists that victory as Obama has defined it — the creation of a stable, Western-style nation — is impossible.
About 40 percent of voters favor a further escalation. Another 40 percent support withdrawal. Of the 20 percent left over, most would like to have more success with no additional sacrifices. This 20 percent, like the president and his team, is engaging in magical thinking.
Since getting the bad news about the war from Gen. Stanley McChrystal last month, the president has been trying to figure out how to get his Afghanistan plan back on track — in between health care stump speeches, global warming negotiations, diplomatic mud wrestling with Iran, analyzing the latest terrorist plot unraveled by the FBI and trying to get the Olympics to Chicago in 2016.
Obama first increased troop levels in February. Then on March 27, he outlined an ambitious new policy for the war.
His plan wasn't just to kill the baddies but to start a long effort in both Afghanistan and Pakistan to bring stability to the more than 200 million people who live in the two countries. Benighted, backward Afghanistan and teeming, radicalizing Pakistan were to become bulwarks of security thanks to an enhanced military presence and “agricultural specialists and educators, engineers and lawyers.”
But the enemy was getting stronger, and U.S. deaths continued to rise — 175 since April, more than in the first four years of the war.
In May, Obama became the first president to fire a combat commander in 58 years.
He sacked Gen. David McKeirnan in favor of McChrystal after growing frustrated by McKeirnan's slow application of the Obama doctrine.
On Aug. 17, the president gave his now-famous “war of necessity” speech. (It didn't create much of a stir at the time. The Washington Examiner gave it a banner headline on Page One, but most other major newspapers buried it on inside pages.)
But in the Afghan elections that took place three days later, there were no winners. Observers saw a corrupt process, an intimidated electorate and no reasonable way to ascertain the will of the people.
About a week after that, the president got McChrystal's predictably dire report.
And that's how Obama went from beating the war drums to “reassessment” in less than a fortnight.
The president long ago glommed on to the idea of the good Afghan war and the bad Iraqi war as a way to avoid seeming like a weakling.
As Fouad Ajami wrote, the idea of the “good war” in Afghanistan was the “club with which the Iraq war was battered.” But campaign bromides have proved a poor basis for a military strategy.
Obama's approach when confronted with no desirable outcomes during his relatively brief career has been to play for time and then ditch the subject.
We know about his 129 “present” votes in the Illinois legislature and his thin U.S. Senate record, but his first health plan provides the best insight into his governing style.
In 2004, as chairman of the state Senate health committee, Obama got liberal lawmakers to sign on for a universal coverage program for Illinois. But in the face of opposition, Obama folded his hand and created a blue-ribbon panel to a recommendation at a later date.
The recommendation did eventually come Jan. 28, 2007, but the plan was too expensive. Obama, though, was long gone to Washington and less than two weeks away from declaring his presidential candidacy.
Now Obama is playing for time on a number of issues, hoping that some unexpected consensus or unavoidable choice will give him a Houdini-style escape on public health insurance, global warming fees and closing Guantanamo Bay prison.
But those are political wars of choice, not shooting wars of necessity. Except for the ferocious Left, few would be much bothered if Obama maintained the status quo for the near term.
Obama must choose between a long, expensive, bloody escalation with no guarantee of success or a retreat from seven years of rhetoric against his predecessor and play an unsatisfying game of Islamist whack-a-mole.
Neither is desirable, but it is simply unacceptable to sit by while Taliban thugs take target practice at our undermanned forces.
We may for the first time get to see what happens when Obama has to make a tough choice, which is what being a leader is all about.
Chris Stirewalt is the political editor of The Washington Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.