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The Price of Consensus Is a Poorly Framed Op-Ed

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) have an op-ed in the Washington Post this morning cheering President Obama for his emerging Afghanistan strategy and pledging their full support. They don’t phrase it like that, though. They phrase it like this:

As the administration finalizes its policy review, we are troubled by calls in some quarters for the president to adopt a “minimalist” approach toward Afghanistan. [...]

The political allure of such a reductionist approach is obvious. But it is also dangerously and fundamentally wrong, and the president should unambiguously reject it. Let there be no doubt: The war in Afghanistan can be won. Success — a stable, secure, self-governing Afghanistan that is not a terrorist sanctuary — can be achieved. Just as in Iraq, there is no shortcut to success, no clever “middle way” that allows us to achieve more by doing less. A minimalist approach in Afghanistan is a recipe not for winning smarter but for losing slowly at tremendous cost in American lives, treasure and security.

No one who pays the slightest bit of attention to the Afghanistan debate can possibly think that McCain and Lieberman are arguing against a contention the Obama administration considers viable. Look at the elements of the strategy that have emerged so far. There’s already been a U.S. troop increase. There’s going to be a complementary increase in U.S. diplomats and development workers, and they’re going to go to places like the south, where the insurgency is out-governing the U.S.-backed Kabul government. And now there’s also going to be a huge and expensive increase of undetermined duration in the Afghan National Army. (There may as well be a push into Pakistan, risky as that is.)

It’s true that Obama has defined the goal in Afghanistan as a counterterrorism goal — the eradication of jihadist safehavens — but that’s a recognition, and an overdue one, of what McCain and Lieberman recognize is the “vital national interest” justifying the war in the first place. What the Obama administration is about to unveil is a counterinsurgency strategy for a counterterrorism objective. Or, to use McCain and Lieberman’s phrase, a “comprehensive civil-military counterinsurgency approach backed by greatly increased resources and an unambiguous U.S. political commitment to success in Afghanistan over the long haul.” This is Obama’s approach, translated into Conservative. Welcome to consensus.

I suppose it’s a less attractive frame to say “We used to be Obama’s political opponents, but when it comes to Afghanistan, we applaud everything he’s doing.” But it’s not like Fred Hiatt isn’t going to print an op-ed by these two senators.

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