March 18, 2013
In the current issue of Foreign Policy Magazine a very vivid description was painted of the first four years of the Obama administration's quest for a solution in Afghanistan. This quest was led by Richard Holbrooke who, prior to accepting the post of special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, was the foreign relations advisor to Hillary Clinton during her primary campaign against Obama for the Democrat presidential nomination. Within the State Department much of the components from Clinton's primary team--the inner circle if you will--found themselves in a long and brutal conflict with the White House. Holbrooke was part of this conflict.
The FP article was penned by Vali Nasr. Nasr was hand-picked by Holbrooke to join him in his special mission to find a reasonable conclusion to the US involvement in Afghanistan. Nasr describes a lengthy war of attrition between his little group within State and a cabal of advisors to the President in the White House. After explaining how he came to his position at State, Nasr writes "The truth is that his administration made it extremely difficult for its own foreign-policy experts to be heard. Both Clinton and Holbrooke, two incredibly dedicated and talented people, had to fight to have their voices count on major foreign-policy initiatives."
Without rehashing what Nasr wrote for FP, I want to focus on something that is only touched on by Nasr as an explanation to what he faced and what he saw. In the first two years of Holbrooke's work for the administration, it was explained to him via White House aides that the difficulty lay first with Hamid Karzai, then a faulty military strategy, and lastly the resurgent force of the Taliban. In 2009 Obama faced the task of deciding how to proceed in his attempts to bring an end to the Afghanistan conflict, a diplomatic method or a militaristic method.
According to Nasr, Holbrooke pushed hard for the diplomatic method, and he was supported by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In preparation for meetings with the White House, Clinton would encourage Holbrooke's staff to provide her with as much information as possible so as to not allow "[Secretary of Defense Robert] Gates to dominate the conversation." Yet it seemed no matter how well informed Secretary Clinton was or how compelling an argument for a diplomatic solution was made, the perceived attitude coming from the White House was one of dismissal and acquiescence for a military solution. This, as Nasr explained it, was due to pure political calculation by the White House.
Nasr describes Obama as being surrounded by a "Berlin Wall of staffers who shielded" him from "any option or idea they did not want him to consider." He writes that Obama ran his 2008 campaign on the notion of Afghanistan being the "good war" and then, when public opinion on the war began to sour, Obama decided to "declare victory and call the troops back home." And then Nasr writes this, very important one line sentence in an eleven page article, "His [Obama's] actions from start to finish were guided by politics, and they played well at home."
On this one very important issue, Afghanistan, Obama is painted as someone who is surrounded by closed minded yes men who view every situation through a political lens seeking advantage for Obama in the eyes of the public. I would extrapolate this theory to include the whole of the governing manner of Obama's administration. From the economy to foreign policy to domestic social policy, the name of the game is political advantage in the eyes of the public and not what is best for the United States.
I have often read--and even said myself on occasion--that it would have been much more preferable for Hillary Clinton to have won in 2008. Nasr details one instance that puts a lot of truth behind that sentiment.
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