a message to progressives on Afghanistan

A message to progressives on Afghanistan (Part 4): supporting President Obama

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This is part 4 of a 5-part series responding to arguments from thoughtful Democrats and progressives who are unsure about opposing President Obama’s plan for Afghanistan. Part one about whether more troops create more security is here. Part two on women’s rights is here.  Part 3 on the terrorist threat is here.

Reason #4: “I trust President Obama’s leadership; we need to give him a chance to make this work.”

I was among the millions of people who volunteered time to help get Barack Obama elected, and who want to see him succeed in office.  I have been encouraged by many of the things he has done on the foreign policy front, from his Nowruz message to Iran to his commitment to reducing our nuclear arsenal. But a democracy doesn’t fully function when you give a blank check to your leaders, and President Obama understands this as much as anyone. In his inauguration speech, he pledged that he would listen to people who disagree with him, and he is actively engaging with the American public, as seen through his online town hall meeting. We can respectfully disagree about a policy without tearing him down or undermining the positive things he aims to do.

There is pressure coming at the administration from all sides to “finish the job,” and if he’s not hearing the other side of the argument, it’s predictable where our policy will go.  As Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) recently stated, “He’s the smartest man in American politics today,” Rep. Conyers said. “But he occasionally gets bad advice and makes mistakes. This is one of those instances.”

Not only is it healthy and necessary to share our disagreement, it is the only way we are going to see any movement at all toward our position. President Obama is facing pressure from the military brass who keep coming back to him asking for more troops. He will be criticized by hawks who mistakenly think the military is the best and only tool we have to keep ourselves safe. If we want Obama to have leeway on his plan, or the political will to invest in nonmilitary strategies as much as military ones, we need to create the political space for that to happen. Without the voices offering support to an alternative vision, President Obama will have very little wiggle room and the mistaken impression that those changes will be politically risky.

I have heard people express a desire to give President Obama some time to see if his new strategy will work. But after more than seven years, we already have ample evidence that a military strategy will not advance US goals. As the women’s rights group MADRE points out, the US/NATO troop presence increased by 45% in 2007 with little positive result. In fact, 2008 was the bloodiest year for both American troops and Afghan civilians.  We owe it to the people who are in harm’s way to advocate a better strategy now. We can honor the historic nature of Barack Obama’s presidency and our desire for him to succeed while still following our consciences and pushing our government for a better Afghanistan policy.

Tomorrow I’ll post my last post in this series. Reason #5: “We have an obligation to the Afghan people. We broke it, we should fix it.”

Flickr photo from Army.mil.

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