Obama’s conservative foreign policy

Alex Potter

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Andrew Sullivan said it best:  “Obama is more the conservative than they will ever be.” He was speaking of Obama’s foreign policy towards Iran, but our “bleeding-heart liberal” President is also staking out such a hard-nosed conservative position on the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan that it has “them,” the liberals-with-fangs neoconservatives, screaming for blood (as usual).

General McChrystal, the commanding general in Afghanistan, has submitted a report requesting up to 45,000 additional troops to adequately support our nation-building, counter-insurgency strategy there.

This dramatic request comes at a time when casualties in Afghanistan are at an all time high, with 50 U.S. soldiers falling in battle during August alone. It also comes at a time when U.S. confidence in the possibility of a non-corrupt Afghani government is low after an embarrassingly fraudulent election. Even worse, it comes at a time when our allies doubt their troop commitments to Afghanistan. Worst of all, it comes at a time when American public approval for the war is polling at a measly 39 percent.

Domestically, the sticker shock of deploying a total of 100,000 troops, and a decades-long commitment to nation-building in one of the poorest and most violent areas of the world is more than daunting as we struggle to pay for even the most basic functions of government here at home. America first never sounded so sweet on Main Street.

And so the conservatives have begun to duel. On one side are the neoconservatives, who would use American might to make the world over again according to their liberal democratic vision like a benevolent empire. On the other side are traditional conservatives who are cautious about the limits of American military and economic power and about spreading democracy by the sword. The Atlantic Monthly has called the decision whether to escalate or draw down involvement in Afghanistan “Obama’s FDR Moment,” while conservative bastion George F. Will titled his Sept. 1 column “Time to get out of Afghanistan.”

One side sees us as an empire of crusading liberators. The other sees us as a prudent republic with limited resources.

Yet it seems clear that George Will and the conservative mainstream’s realism is winning out. Even the President of the Council on Foreign Relations has called Afghanistan a “war of choice,” though no doubt a tough choice.

The turn-around on Afghanistan has been prompted by an honest question that strikes at the heart of American foreign policy: what are our true interests? It is the most significant question regarding the utilization of American power abroad since the Bush Doctrine, and in many ways its antithesis.

In his famous speech to the Muslim world from Cairo, Obama said, “Make no mistake:  We do not want to keep our troops in Afghanistan . . . we seek no military bases there.” A permanent presence in Afghanistan has never been Obama’s goal; what a refreshingly realist foreign policy approach!

Despite neoconservative delusions of a Central Asian oil empire, we went into Afghanistan for one reason: to fight al-Qaeda. Obama is proposing that this singular goal may be carried out more effectively through a limited war focusing on Special Forces, missile strikes and intelligence.

Such a strategy will mean large swaths of Afghanistan will continue to be controlled by Taliban and likely a political deal including them in the central government in exchange for not harboring al-Qaeda. It will be a disaster for the women of Afghanistan. But it will free us to pursue the real enemy hiding along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border with relentless focus.

In effect, a purely counter-terrorist Afghan strategy will mean separating people we despise from people who threaten us in our homeland. It will mean jettisoning Bush’s “you are either with us or you are against us” criterion of international relations. It will save a significant number of American lives and billions of dollars we need at home, while continuing the mission that started on 9/11 to kill our enemies before they strike us again.

Most important, a truly conservative strategy in Afghanistan will begin to address the illness in American foreign policy that Senator Fulbright identified in his Vietnam-era book “The Arrogance of American Power,” namely the crusading impulse to reshape the world in our image without regard to the limits of our power and understanding of local experiences, tradition and circumstance.

Senator Calhoun wrote in 1848 that “we think we may now indulge in everything with impunity, as if we held our charter of liberty by ‘right divine’: from Heaven itself. Under these impressions, we plunge into war, we contract heavy debts, we increase the patronage of the executive, and we even talk of a crusade to force our institutions, our liberty, upon all people. There is no species of extravagance which our people imagine will endanger their liberty in any degree. But it is a great and fatal mistake. The day of retribution will come.”

The Republican Party has often forgotten these words, but it seems that finally there is a true conservative in the White House remembering them and putting America first.