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Obama Blame Game, Iraq and Afghanistan Version

Several weeks ago, I wrote about the “9/11 Blame Game” and how both Democrats and Republicans blame the other side for 9/11; and last week Eric continued this topic by describing how Republicans, mainly Dick Cheney and other pundits, have already begun blaming Obama for the next attack. As I wrote the “9/11 Blame Game,” I wondered if conservatives would start blaming President Obama for losing, if we do, in Iraq or Afghanistan. Sure enough, only six months in to his Presidency, they have.

Victory is far from assured in either war. Despite the success of the surge in Iraq, the war is far from over; in Afghanistan, the situation grows more tenuous every month. While conservatives could make a case--and probably will in 2012-- that President Obama is responsible for the outcomes of each conflict as President, from a historical perspective this is unsupportable.

I feel that the best historical analogy for Barack Obama is Richard Nixon’s inheritance of the Vietnam war. Few blame Nixon for the fall of south Vietnam. He did what he could to pull out of Vietnam, and still it took years to do so. When historians, politicians and journalists analyze Vietnam, the blame falls on President Lyndon Johnson and the recently deceased Robert McNamara--the men who increased US involvement passed the point of no return.

Further, if by pulling out of Iraq and Afghanistan violence spikes in either country, Barack Obama will not be to blame.Whenever the US pulls out of a nation our removal portends better things in the long run. As Bennet Ramberg writes in the March/April Foreign Affairs, in the article called “Precedents for Withdrawal,” violence usually increases directly after the US pull out of a nation (Vietnam, Cambodia, Lebanon, Somalia) but then levels out. When, President Obama finally pulls all troops out of Iraq, the country will likely surge in violence again. In the years after, though, the country will stabilize.

Beyond historical analogies, blaming Obama for Iraq ignores the situation he inherited. President Bush never clarified our country’s intention before or after the invasion. Whether building democracy, toppling Saddam, fighting terrorists or finding weapons of mass destruction, we either never specified the goals; or we didn’t leave when they were accomplished. As for the successes of the recent surge, Thomas Ricks describes in this post how the tactical gains of the surge never actually fostered political reconciliation. Even if violence surges in Iraq after the surge that should not be held against President Obama.

Yet, the biggest target for Obama is not Iraq but Afghanistan. After appointing Lt. General Bill McChrystal to ground commander in Afghanistan, the current war narrative now describes this as Barack Obama’s war. This description ignores the length of our stay in that country and it is premature to call it his war. We have occupied Afghanistan for going on eight years, and the country still looks like it belongs in the fourteenth century. The Taliban own the countryside; and have for the last eight years. The war started poorly, and continued worse for eight years. Whatever Barack Obama does accomplish--even if the US pulls out and the Taliban take over--cannot be held against him. It’d be like replacing a football coach in the fourth quarter down sixty points and expecting him to win.
If the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq end poorly, some will blame them on President Obama and the Democrats. Unfortunately, no situation will ever be that simple. A situation as complex as two counter-insurgency wars fought in the larger context of a war against Islamic extremism will never boil down to blame between one President or the next. Unfortunately, the entire national security, military, and Congressional branches all share blame. Right now, instead of assigning blame, we can only work towards winning our current conflicts.

two comments

Do you think either is “winnable? If so, what would you describe winning as?

Displacing a fascist regime? Planting a government run by its own population? Locating WMDs and destroying them? Throwing a giant party so Israel and the rest of the middle east are bff?

There’s sarcasim there, but only because victory with regards to war is no longer a definite term. We don’t force the English ou and create our own country, we don’t reunite north and south, and we don’t liberate Europe. We make small advancement like overthrowing a regime, ensuring fair elections, and training people to protect and run their own country. Those are victories.