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Obama’s national security dilemma
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n his last post, Shrum offered a very interesting 9/11 “might have been”:

Instead of a quick, heavy strike to destroy Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, followed by a near term withdrawal, Bush shortchanged our forces there even as he magnified their mission. While he was obsessed with Iraq, a narco-terrorist sanctuary grew and flourished in Afghanistan and sprawled into Pakistan, where Bush was gulled into financing an “ally” whose intelligence agency has aided and abetted assaults against our forces as well as India. Today, the subcontinent teeters on the brink of conflict between two states with nuclear arsenals.

I hope Shrum won’t think it cheeky if I note that this was exactly the strategy that Donald Rumsfeld wanted to follow in Afghanistan.

But here was the problem: Withdraw rapidly from Afghanistan? OK—but that meant accepting precisely what Shrum would condemn, the relapse of Afghanistan into narco-terrorism.

Fight the relapse? OK again—but how to do that without Pakistani goodwill? And part of the price of that goodwill has been to pretend to believe Pakistan’s denials of involvement in terrorism.

So there’s the strategic conundrum.

Now the political conundrum:

In a very few days, Democrats assume responsibility for the national security of the United States. In opposition, they had the luxury of criticizing the Bush administration from every angle, without regard to consistency or even coherence. But to govern is to choose, and now Democrats must choose.

In Afghanistan, for example, the insurgency relies on two great sources of support: Pakistan and drug revenues. The U.S. could shut down much of that drug revenue by, for example, attacking poppy refining labs from the air. (These labs emit heat and so are very visible to aircraft.) But that would imply a big escalation in the U.S. role. It would surely lead to civilian casualties. And it would increase tensions with NATO allies who thought they were engaged in Afghan peacekeeping, not a militarized anti-drug campaign. In Pakistan, Democrats want to work with the new elected government.

But when pressed to deliver on anything important—from counter-proliferation to counter-terrorism to counter-corruption—elected Pakistani governments almost always disappoint. And after all, we don’t want the government to fall, do we?

Democrats profess enthusiasm and sympathy for terror-stricken democratic India. Yet almost everything the Indians want from the U.S. is perceived by Pakistan as threatening—and corrodes even further Pakistan’s never very remarkable cooperation. So: press ahead with the India relationship? Or grant Pakistan a veto?

Is Islamic extremism an ideology to be challenged—or an understandable expression of grievances that need to be appeased?

Do we prefer democracy—or the undemocratic but reasonably cooperative status quo in Egypt and the Gulf?

And if an Iranian nuclear weapon is unacceptable, how precisely will Democrats thwart it, when every peaceful option has failed—and they themselves oppose the use of force against Iran? Or does “unacceptable” just mean “regrettable”? Or nothing at all?

The key to Barack Obama’s success to date has been the deft deployment of verbal formulas to reconcile contradictions. It will be interesting to see whether that trick works quite so well in real life.

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