I am told by people I respect that Barack Obama cannot pull out of both Iraq and Afghanistan without becoming a one-term president. I think that may be true. The charges from various quarters would be toxic—that he was weak, unpatriotic, sacrificing the sacrifices that have been made, betraying our dead, throwing away all former investments in lives and treasure. All that would indeed be brought against him, and he could have little defense in the quarters where such charges would originate.
These are the arguments that have kept us in losing efforts before. They are the ones that made presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon pass on to their successors in the presidency the draining and self-lacerating Vietnam War. They are the arguments that made President George W. Bush pass on two wars to his successor.
One of the strongest arguments for continued firing up of these wars is that none of these presidents wanted to serve only one term (even Lyndon Johnson, who chose not to run for a second full term). But what justification is there for buying a second presidential term with the lives of hundreds or thousands of young American men and women in the military?
I have great hopes for the Obama presidency, even in his first term, and especially if he could have two terms to realize the exciting new things he aspires to do in the White House. But I would rather see him a one-term president than have him pass on another unwinnable war to the person who will follow him in office.
I know how difficult it will be to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan. We go into these places, now, trailing baggage of a deadly sort. There are more hired American contractors in both nations than there are military personnel. What to do with these unaccountable and corrupt bands? We have farmed out so many of our national duties that the contractors, like our banks, have grown too big to be dealt with. Who is to guard our soldiers if not our mercenary bodyguards?
But we had a thousand soldiers wounded in the last three months—a quarter the number of wounded since 2001. These include many lives shattered forever. We sink deeper into blood, with no foreseeable end in sight. Qualified reporters and military officials foresee another ten years in Afghanistan—and their projections usually err on the short side.
The American people now oppose the war, and it is folly to keep up a war without support back home. We will hear predictions of dire consequences if we don’t carry out a commitment, and don’t yield to demands of the military to expand forces. We heard that for years about Vietnam. But when we did withdraw, the consequences were not as fatal as those we incurred during the years that saw the deaths of over 50,000 of our soldiers and many more Vietnamese. Some leader has to break the spell before costs mount further while our wars are passed from president to president. Among other things, this will give our military a needed chance to repair the wear and tear on men and equipment that the overstretched regular services and the National Guard have suffered, and to make them ready for other challenges.
It is unlikely that we will soon have another president with the moral and rhetorical force to talk us out of a foolish commitment that cannot be sustained without shame and defeat. If it costs him his presidency, what other achievement can match it?
During his presidential campaign, Barack Obama said he would rather be a one-term president than give up on his goals. Here is a goal no other president we can imagine would have a possibility of reaching. Presidents who just kick the can down the road are easy to come by. Lost lives and limbs are not.
November 3, 2009, 7 a.m.