The nihilistic Republicans who have rooted for Obama and America to fail at everything from the Olympics to growth and jobs will face a rising headwind next year. Health-care reform will have passed and the economy will be on the mend. Even if Republicans gain seats in 2010, they will be buried by a landslide Obama victory in 2012.

How do I know this? Put aside the ceaseless distractions of a 24-hour news cycle that traffics in instant verdicts; what matters is not this month’s unemployment rate but next summer’s. And if you look beyond the sound bites to the bigger trends, events are moving us toward a new, progressive Obama era.

Why then the disquiet among Obama supporters, among Democratic strategists, even among some inside the White House? There is a one-word answer: Afghanistan.

Obama will make fateful decisions on the issue in the coming weeks, and there is little doubt that his quandary could become a quagmire. The received Democratic wisdom, born in reaction to the Iraq invasion, has been that Iraq was the bad war, Afghanistan the good one. Initially, the argument (which I helped shape) was that U.S. force should have been deployed to Afghanistan in order to crush al Qaida and capture or kill Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants when they were trapped in the mountains of Tora Bora. The implication: Once that was accomplished, the U.S. could depart, leaving behind the credible threat of an overwhelming military response in the event a fundamentalist regime took control and let the country relapse into being a terrorist haven.

I believe that’s the course Al Gore or John Kerry would have taken as president. But as the years passed into protracted conflict and futile nation-building, the misguided mission creep was matched by rhetorical creep. Last spring, the president stamped Afghanistan as a war of "necessity" as he dispatched 17,000 additional U.S. troops.

Now the commander in charge of Afghan operations, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has requested 40,0000 more—at a time when polls show a rise in the number of Americans who regard the conflict as a "mistake." Meanwhile, the Republicans lie in wait. If the president escalates, the conflict drags on and the dying mounts, they will label it Obama’s war (and like Richard Nixon in 1968, they will cynically promise "peace with honor"). Alternatively, if the president refuses to wager more American lives, the GOP will accuse Obama of "cutting and running."
McChrystal, who has operated in a way that suggests he doesn’t know or doesn’t care about civilian control of the military, has publicly lobbied for more troops. Both the request and the general’s insubordination have fired a raging debate. But soon the president will have to choose—and his options are all bad.

He can escalate. Sen. John McCain argues for the policy—no surprise—by invoking "the 68,000 young people who are over there ... in harm’s way." It’s based on logic redolent of Vietnam: We have to risk more lives because American lives are already at risk.

I’ve been told by someone involved in the decision-making process that under McChrystal’s plan, the casualty count would become "cruel" and close to unsustainable for the public. What’s more, the additional troops he has requested could become the rationale for still more troop requests; after all, we’d have even more at risk, as McCain would predictably point out. Obama would be cast in the role of the hawkish Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford in early 1968, when he asked how much force would be sufficient to achieve the objective and within what time frame. Clifford famously, fiercely, and successfully opposed further escalation when the answers he received were not even remotely satisfactory.

I hope Obama is asking the Clifford questions right now, because McChrystal’s apparent objective in Afghanistan seems implausible. How do you clear and hold entire areas of a vast country where guerrillas and their improvised explosive devices confound the power of conventional warfare? Advocates point to Iraq, where the U.S. enlisted—or bought off—previously hostile Sunni forces to mitigate a wave of violence. But even the divided society of Iraq is far more cohesive than the historically untamable chaos of Afghanistan.

So what to do? Vice President Joe Biden, along with Senate national security leaders John Kerry and Carl Levin, urges a focused strategy of targeting the terrorists where they are—in Pakistan even more than Afghanistan—rather than the utopian project of nation building in a riven, tribalized land. Biden & Co. prefer more drones in the air to more boots on the ground. It’s said that Biden talks a lot, but he talks a lot of sense, too. The Biden approach sets a more modest goal: to make us safe from al Qaida instead of making Afghanistan safe for democracy.

McChrystal and his allies claim this strategy can’t succeed. But the notion that we can escalate and then train Afghan troops to gradually replace our own—this war’s equivalent of Nixon’s Vietnamization policy—flies in the face of history and the
facts. When we leave, and someday we will, the underlying realities will reassert themselves in an Afghanistan that will be neither stable nor free. The best attainable outcome, unhappy but not unacceptable in terms of our national security, may be a Taliban-dominated regime that represses Afghans in their country but doesn’t threaten Americans in ours.

Achieving this will require modulation, not escalation—and a measure of at least informal negotiation. We can’t just leave, not yet. But it may well be a mistake to split the difference between McChrystal and Biden, sending another 20,000 troops along with a series of purported benchmarks that would likely necessitate additional deployments. This course may make sense in terms of the 2010 election, but if the president is tempted to pursue it for political reasons, he should think about the young Americans who would pay the price. If he selects half escalation from his menu of bad choices, he will have to persuade a skeptical nation of its merits. Not with expedient promises of "light at the end of the tunnel" but with a sober, grounded argument. It will be a hard case to make.

In truth, the case won’t be easy whatever the choice. When Obama pursued health-care reform despite the virtually unanimous counsel of his advisors to wait, he showed strength and boldness. He’ll need both qualities again, in even greater measure. If he goes down the Biden path, he will be portrayed as "weak on national security"—the traditional bane of Democrats. If he follows McChrystal’s advice, he could see his ambitious presidency, and the potential for a progressive era, consumed in an unpopular and futile war—the fate of Lyndon Johnson and his Great Society. And if the president tries to split the difference and muddle through, he won’t escape the opportunistic opprobrium of the opposition—and he may still end up mired in Afghanistan.

Right now, despite a phalanx of advisors, Barack Obama knows in a very real way why the American presidency is called the loneliest job in the world. Time will tell that this president got the economy right; virtually alone in his administration, he got health care right, too. But in the presidency, past performance is not rewarded. There’s a lot on the line in Afghanistan, maybe the whole Obama presidency. Let’s hope he gets this one right, too.